Early on in Stephen Frears’ The Queen, Elizabeth II sits for a portrait. It also happens to be Britain’s election day. When the painter remarks that he’s already gone to cast his vote, Helen Mirren’s QEII tells him she envies him—he and his private right to “the sheer joy of being partial.” It’s a telling moment, to be sure, and many reviewers have picked up on the line as a touchstone to appreciating what Frears does with the backstory of Princess Diana’s death. But that angle—the reigning monarch’s serious and sacrificial vow to live for the country first and self second, and for as long as she lives (as the Queen Mum has to remind her daughter at one frustrated point)—really only deals with part of the story.
The setting for the film is the fateful days 1997. Just months prior to the tragedy that would cause almost an entire nation to grieve, Labor Party candidate Tony Blair sweeps into power in what is tantamount to a populist revolution against the conservative regimes of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Of course, according to British Law, the election results mean nothing without the formal invitation of the reigning monarch; so Prime Minister-elect Blair and wife Cherie pay their first visit to the Queen. And Blair gets a concise education about status, privilege, and protocol. Quite coolly. The Queen is not amused with the Blairs’ informality, or Cherie’s openly anti-monarchist sentiments, and arranges for a pre-emptory termination to the interview.
The ice of the relationship eventually thaws due to Blair’s handling of government affairs in the wake of Princess Diana’s death on August 31 of that year. As the royal family sequesters itself in its Balmoral, Scotland estate that first week of September, Blair—completely at sea with the stiffness, emotional distance, and political myopia of royal tradition—is left to handle both the media and the populace alone. Oddly enough, while some parties (including both Blair’s wife and speechwriter) see in the moment an opportunity to bring pro-monarchy sentiment to its knees, Blair ends up seeing something quite different. So the film becomes not only about the Queen’s sense of isolation and duty, but also about Blair’s sensitivity to the royal predicament.
In addition, the film is—and perhaps most tellingly—about the pursuit of beauty. There’s a reason that the royal family treasures its privacy so, and it’s more than mere issues of stodgy respect and decorum. As the film delicately reminds us, there’s a certain level of danger attached to the public fascination with personalities. That pursuit can kill people, as it so tragically did with Diana; and there’s a certain gory irony in Frears’ incorporation of actual paparazzi footage of Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Luciano Pavarotti, and Elton John at Diana’s funeral. Frears pulls no punches in emphasizing the culpability of the overly-aggressive press who are intent on sating the public’s endless appetites. In one fine moment, Frears’ camera punctuates the point by refusing to follow Prince Charles into the room where Diana’s body lies.
But Frears isn’t satisfied with even that direct or delicate a commentary. Instead, he uses a wry parallel to the pastimes of the royal family to make a more universal statement.
The very day that Diana’s death is confirmed, Prince Philip suggests some outdoor activity to distract Harry and William—a deer hunt. A magnificent stag has been sighted on the estate, and the men of the family take to the hills in wet and patient pursuit. “How cold!” the movie asks us to react. “How crass!” But screenwriter Peter Morgan isn’t done with that storyline yet.
A couple of days later, the Queen drives out alone to join the hunters. As she comes to a river crossing, she reluctantly guns her Land Rover into the ford. But the vehicle breaks down in midstream, and Elizabeth is forced to summon help. As she waits, the weight of her emotions overwhelms her and she, too, breaks down—and the stag appears on the river bank behind her, magnificent, glorious, beautiful, spiritual, and earthy. She stirs from her emotional reverie and urges the stag to flee. She turns away to look for the hunters, and when she turns back the stag has vanished, as if it were an apparition.
When the family finally agrees to travel to London for a memorial service, the Queen gets news that the stag has been killed on a neighboring estate. And Diana’s death seems to take on new significance for her. She understands the public fascination with beauty, and she grasps the persistent pursuit of the ultimate headshot.
What is “stalking”—the British term for hunting—all about? Is there any difference between what Philip and the boys do, and what a photographer does on back of a motorcycle in France? Frears seems not to think so; and yet he finds neither crass irony nor indictment in that observation. Instead, like Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair, he finds that we are all a great deal alike, and that there is profound humanity in us all.
Mirren, not incidentally, is a marvel as the queen. I have never been a big fan of Mirren’s work, as it’s difficult for me to separate Mirren the actor from the characters she plays. But she won me over here, and may have for life, regardless of her personal quirks and politics.
This is filmmaking at its best, if not its most titillating or expensive. If you’re looking for a Disney theme park ride, rent Dead Man’s Chest again; but if you’re looking for a thoughtful and brilliantly written, performed, and directed commentary on why we find Johnny Depp and Kiera Knightly so fascinating—and what the cost of that fascination can be—then this is the movie for you.
The Queen is rated PG-13 for “brief strong language.” Good heavens. I doubt many children under thirteen would have the least interest in this film; but the language would scar them far less than fifteen minutes in any grade school restroom. Once more, the comparison to any PG-13 Ace Ventura movie makes this rating seem preposterous. How about “Rated PG-13 for a bit of strong language and soberly adult content that will try the patience of most children”? That I could live with.
This interview originally appeared at HollywoodJesus.com.