The Queen

Throughout history, people have maintained that members of royal families are not like the rest of us. That may be true, but it is not because of the Divine Right of Kings, nor is it in their genes. (Unless you count inbreeding in the most extreme examples.) When monarchs had real power, it was the pressure of leadership and all the training and expectations that went along with it. Today, however, a child born into the British royal family is not expected to rule, he/she is expected to be a figure head, a representative of the country, and a great deal of energy is expended by the press judging how well they do that job. Every action, every romantic fling, or every cross moment is recorded, photographed and plastered all over the notorious English tabloids. For a royal, privacy is a precious commodity that must be guarded jealously.

This is the world that Stephen Frears ushers us into in The Queen. Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth II during the crisis precipitated by Princess Diana’s death. England loved Diana who represented a more informal hipper style that connected with more people than the stoic dignity of the Queen, her mother, Prince Philip, and Prince Charles. When Diana died all of England mourned and they were expecting to see a crack in the royal family’s reserve.

Elizabeth, however, wished to view the death of her ex-daughter-in-law as a family matter. Her stiff upper lip style had gotten her through the second world war and the turbulent post war years and she assumed that was what people expected. When Tony Blair, the new Labour Prime Minister tried to urge her to bend a little, she resisted.

It didn’t help that the royal family didn’t like Diana much. They viewed her as a publicity grubbing debutante who invited the hated press into their world and, although they would never have said it, probably deserved what she got.  In one of the scenes where Elizabeth was watching one of the many loving tributes to Diana on television, her distaste for the woman was evident.

Helen Mirren is wonderful, even regal as Elizabeth II. She humanizes this icon, showing us vulnerabilities that we would never have suspected. Michael Sheen is excellent as Tony Blair, the youngest PM in history, a sharp avid reformer who gradually comes to sympathize with the old guard. James Cromwell plays the irasible Prince Philip, who’s so hidebound in the traditions of the monarchy that he can’t countenance puttinga flag up at the palace so they can fly it a half mast.

Of course The Queen is all speculation. We’ll never really know what went on behind the closed doors of Balmoral Castle and Buckingham Palace that summer; we’ll never really know what these strange warped people are like. And that’s probably as it should be. History has reduced their role to an ongoing drama for the edification of the English people, but the royals are entitled to shut those doors from time to time and be themselves. Whoever that might be.


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December 2006
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