Protocol and Response

The Queen. Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen star in a film written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

If the rich live differently from the rest of us, the royals live on a whole other plane of different. That detachment from the world of mortals is the primary subject of director Stephen Frears’s latest film, The Queen. He succeeds in high style because of his confident mixture of stylistic verve, mock-doc veracity, and, most importantly, evenhandedness in the storytelling process. Steering clear of easy satire or civil gloss, he grants his subject neither immunity nor impunity.

Essentially, the sharp script by Peter Morgan (who also cowrote The Last King of Scotland) deals with a week in the life — a controversial and publicly scrutinized week — in royal family history. Framed by the tragic death of Princess Diana in 1997 and her funeral, with mounting pressure from the press and public for the royal family to break its deafening silence, the story juggles historical fact and speculation on the interior lives of the royal and famous.

Lurking in the subplot zone is the role of the press in stirring up trouble and seeking justice. We move from the exploitative and possibly murderous zeal of paparazzi who caused Di’s fatal car crash to the image of press as messenger for the British people’s anger. Daily headlines, combined with then-new Prime Minister Tony Blair’s urging, help pull the queen out of her lofty reclusion, where she is seen tooling around her Scottish estate in a four-wheel drive and generally keeping out of sight and sound. The creepiest moment, however, is the haughty chill that hovers over the inner quarters of Buckingham Palace as the royal elders watch world leaders discuss Di on the telly.

In the main, though, the queen of England emerges as a human being in the film, prone to misinterpreted behavior, but essentially good. It helps, of course, that Helen Mirren supplies such a nuanced, anchoring performance in the lead role. She keeps her royal cool throughout, insisting “that’s the way we do things in this country, quietly and with dignity.” Some Brits on the ground have a different opinion, that the royals are “freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters.”

Stitching together archival footage and dramatics, Frears skillfully tells his story by carefully swerving through those viewpoints, making the queen appear all the more fallible, complex, and thus human. The empress has clothes, after all.

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