Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Queen (2006)

The QueenMonarchs have always faced threats to their thrones. So much so that royal history, burgeoning with fiendish conspiracies, violent plots, and gruesome assassinations, sometimes reads like a slasher novel. A few recent films have fully exploited this theme. 1998's "Elizabeth", starring the should-have-won-an-Oscar-for-this-role Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I, revolved around an assassination attempt that included the queen's lover. On a less violent theme, Judy Dench, in "Mrs. Brown", depicted Queen Victoria's "trist" with a Highlander that had all of England alight with scandal. Has a new "threatened queen" genre emerged? Apparently so. Enter a rare film about a living monarch who finds her crown imperiled in an astonishingly novel way. For once Her Majesty can watch the drama she lived reemerge in celluloid not that she probably wants to. Though the film sports a prosaic title, "The Queen", it boldly explores uncharted territory. Here the Queen, reigning in the late twentieth century hinterland between monarchy and non-monarchy, finds herself attacked by her own people. And she, much like the great-great-grandmother she shares with her husband, was not amused.

The film opens as Queen Elizabeth II sits for a regal portrait. Her world unfolds as the royal portraiteer dotes on his imperial subject. Then, in a "we're not in Kansas anymore" flash, the newly elected Tony Blair explodes onto the screen. The now ex-Prime Minister receives voluminous coverage for a movie entited "The Queen." One memorable early scene shows Blair bowing on one knee as the Queen inquires as to his desire to serve the nation. He answers "yes." That probably didn't give too much away. Both figures, Sovereign and Prime Minister, share the spotlight and their disparate worlds collide after catastrophe strikes.

News of Princess Diana's death soars over England. Actual news footage, now almost ten years old, gets woven with dramatization. The late Princess appears often. Tony Blair issues a eulogy almost immediately. But the royal family remains eerily silent, holed up in Balmoral, their Scottish getaway. The Duke of Edinburgh, depicted here as rather heartless and crass, shows more concern for hunting stags than the furor around the dead Princess. He even takes Diana's sons hunting as a diversion. Prince Charles, divorced for a year from Diana, remains the only one moved. He flies to France to bring the body of his ex-wife back to England. As the tension rises the film depicts him as nervous, fidgety, and fearing assassination. Regardless, he cannot alter his mother's public stoicism towards the tragedy. The Queen Mother provides some comic relief. When someone shows concern over photographers intruding on their son's hunt, she says nonchalantly, "if there's a photographer he could be the first kill of the day."

Soon bundles of flowers and messages of grief crowd the gate of Buckingham Palace. But no one's home. The flag, supporting royal traditon, remains lowered in the Queen's absence. Icy silence from the palace sours the public. They begin speaking out against the monarchy. This causes a drastic change in Tony Blair. He suddenly sees the interdependence of the Queen with his own station. In phone call after phone call he pleads with her to do something. She resists even after he gives her a vital statistic: one in four people now favor abolishing the monarchy. Que the Threatened Queen leitmotif. Princess Diana now seems to upstage the royal family even in death. Elizabeth II convinces herself that "this mood" will pass.

It doesn't. Slowly the idea that her people hate her sinks in. Bowing to pressure, the family inspects the bundles of grief displayed outside of Balmoral. They soon return to London and face the dense Buckingham crowds. Here the Queen sees what her public indifference has wrought. She reads "They don't deserve you" and "They have your blood on their hands" on some of the flowers. Here begins the Queen's transformation, criss-crossing with the Prime Minister's. Diana's death irreversably changes them both. Finally, probably more in deference to her public than to the dead Princess, the Queen finally issues a public statement. Blair's staff has the original text rewritten "to make it appear like a human being wrote it." But at this point Blair, who earlier said "someone save these people from themselves", now lashes out in defense as his aide mocks the Queen's sincerity. The fuse begins to fizzle.

The film explodes a haunting paradox. Royal tradition, often seen as the bulwark of the monarchy, here threatens to undermine the institution itself. Insisting on not raising Buckingham's flag to honor Diana and treating the tragedy as "a private matter" enfuriates the public. Stuff tradition. They demand a change of protocol. Subsequently, Britain turned upside down.

Of course a film depicting living breathing people fumbling through a crisis will inevitably draw controversy. Blair gets depicted as savior here, the steam in the engine. But the real Elizabeth II issued a statement that she decided to speak out all by herself. In her own words no one persuaded her actions. Not only that, Blair and the Queen have supposedly never divulged what passed between them during that tense week. Given that, this film presents an educated guess as to the workings of the English government during that time. One wonders what Tony Blair and the Queen really think of the film. One also wonders if the royal family and the Prime Minister really watch that much television.

The performances throughout remain stunning. Helen Mirren and Micheal Sheen shine as the protagonists/antagonists. Mirren's performance dazzles so much that viewers will forget that they're watching Helen Mirren. She presents an example of undetectable acting at its finest. And though no intense action takes place the film still provides a roller coaster ride. The actors and the direction by Stephen Frears, just off of "Mrs. Henderson Presents", obviously deserve credit here.

Best of all, "The Queen" allows viewers to come to their own conclusions surrounding that controversial week in 1997. Was the public right in lashing out at the monarchy? Was the Queen sincere in her famous "grandmother" speech? Was the monarchy really threatened? The film depicts the events without mashing opinions and answers in viewers' faces. Audiences can leave with vastly differing viewpoints. And what's better than great film? Having great conversations about great film. "The Queen" will doubtless keep tongues happily waggling for some time to come.

Helen Mirren is getting the requisite kudos for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth. But there's another portrayal in Stephen Frears' excellent film of an equally public figure that is going relatively overlooked: Michael Sheen's spot-on take on Tony Blair. I was totally mesmerized at just how perfectly Sheen had both the look and feel of the unbridled optimism of TB at the outset of his first term. That's key because it's Blair's intuition on the matters at hand here that are instrumental in shaking the Royal Family out of their tone-deaf dismissal of the unfolding events across the country.

It's interesting to see the portrayals here and see how harsh or sympathetic they are (Mirren's Elizabeth is complex and beyond analysis here):

Prince Philip A devastating take on him

Price Charles Painted very sympathetically by Alex Jennings, but obviously cowed by his mother

Alastair Campbell A very positive take on New Labour's wordsmith by Mark Bazeley (I'm a big Campbell fan, so it was good to see the script honor his contributions to Blair's early successes).

Queen Mom Yikes! Not a very pretty picture

Frears' delicate and respectful approach keeps William and Harry just off the picture.

What will really take you about the movie is this: as many reviewers here note, they found themselves strangely moved and shocked by Diana's death, like she was a member of the family. When those scenes play out here, wow, you'll be quite surprised at the emotions that well up in you. It will happen. Trust me.

Frears as pitch-perfect movie helmsman includes the stirring end portion of the eulogy penned and intoned by Charles, Earl of Spencer (Diana's brother). Spencer's speech is generally regarded as one of the finest eulogies ever rendered. It has become a part of British textbooks. Here's the part you hear in the movie:

"I would like to end by thanking God for the small mercies he has shown us at this dreadful time. For taking Diana at her most beautiful and radiant and when she had joy in her private life. Above all we give thanks for the life of a woman I am so proud to be able to call my sister, the unique, the complex, the extraordinary and irreplaceable Diana whose beauty, both internal and external, will never be extinguished from our minds."

That will send a chill up your spine when you see it in the theater.

Buy The Queen (2006) Now

There are several themes to this excellent and most original and interesting film; but what it is about more than anything else is how political regimes and whole dynasties can be undone on account of a single error of judgment. It is only near the end that Her Majesty warns her prime minister that this will happen to him, and happen suddenly and without warning. It had nearly happened to her, he had been the saving of her on this occasion, and her dire prediction for him probably holds an uneasy message for herself too.

At the start the Queen is full of regal self-assurance, neatly putting her boyish and slightly nervous novice of a prime minister in his place by telling him he is sitting where Churchill once sat. In next to no time the positions are reversed, as Blair's acute political antennae tell him that HM is in imminent danger of losing her subjects' allegiance, something that would have been unimaginable only days previously, through trusting her own judgment and listening to the advice of her husband and her mother in respect of how to react to the death of Princess Diana. Throughout the crisis Blair is adroit and sure-footed, the monarch is made to realise bitterly from the newspapers how he has it right and she has been hopelessly at sea, but unlike her family counsellors she has the wit to swallow her pride and retrieve the situation before it slides beyond retrieval. This one incident could have undone a lifetime of unswerving dedication, universally acknowledged, to her country, and put the skids under the House of Windsor itself. Her warning to Blair is really made from a new sense of respect and a shocked realisation of how quickly and brutally the tables can turn. And how right she has been. This film does not make the matter explicit, but any viewer can sense the irony of Blair's own political fate. For years he seemed unable to put a foot wrong as far as the public were concerned, his luck was near-incredible (and his political nous was enormously greater than Churchill's); and then he blew it all with one foolish and ill-considered assertion in the Commons about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Just one mistake, when one is not sensing danger, is enough.

The depiction of the main players is brilliant, and I found it fascinating to guess just how accurate it may be. Leaks, rumours, gossip and memoirs certainly descend on the public these days like leaves in Vallombrosa, giving us some shaky basis for forming a judgment. In the nature of the case a prime minister has to make himself (or herself) familiar to a rightly suspicious electorate, but a monarch should always retain some mystique, and the other dramatis personae, even the heir to the throne, are only intermittently in the limelight. Inevitably and rightly the film's characterisation is creative, but it is coherent and convincing provided one does not mistake it for portraiture from life. The acting has been widely praised and I concur entirely. The atmosphere is beautifully touched in too, from the family life of the Blairs (and the Windsors) to the blokeish informality of the New Labour apparatchiks in Downing Street and above all the hushed flunkeyish reverence accorded to the Queen, cocooning her in the chrysalis that nearly devoured her.

I hope there is no possibility of a sequel, as a masterpiece like this should be left unique. Within days now Her Britannic Majesty will be welcoming a new prime minister whom she probably suspects of being a closet republican, as I suspect he is too. I shall be watching out all the same for one thing that this film says clearly through the lips of Cherie Blair, something to the effect that all Labour prime ministers finish up devoted to the Queen. Maybe it will be the same story with Brown, but I wonder how matters will stand once the monarch is no longer Elizabeth II. When that becomes the case the story of Princess Diana is likely to open a new chapter.

Read Best Reviews of The Queen (2006) Here

The British royal family has weathered abdications, wars, and scandal. But one of the nastiest hits to them in the twentieth century came when Princess Di was killed.

And so "The Queen" tries to get inside the perfectly-permed head of the British Queen Elizabeth II, nearly ten years ago. Helen Mirren gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the title character, as she attempts to weather public and personal difficulties. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

The movie opens with the election of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who comes to visit the queen (Mirren), despite being rather nervous about his new job. The country has been off balance ever since Di died in a car crash a few weeks ago, and her passing leaves the royals with mixed feelings. The queen decrees that since Diana divorced Prince Charles, she was no longer a royal, and her arrangements are to be left to her family.

What she doesn't realize is that the people ADORED Diana, and continue to adore her in the weeks that follow. Then the press joins in, berating the royal family for coldly ignoring the ex-princess, and heralding the Labour Party Blair. Her husband and mother think that she should continue doing nothing -but the Queen has learned that sometimes the people need to be appeased.

"The Queen" unfolds slowly like an old book, and Stephen Frears gives it the dignified gloss that usually belongs to older movies. Scenes that could have been maudlin or cliche are underplayed, which makes them more powerful. One example is of the queen peering in as Charles tells his young sons that their mother has died.

Fortunately, as in real life, there's also comedy as well as confusion and tragedy; Peter Morgan injects some humor when a nervy Blair meets the Queen for the first time. Morgan also spins u[ the kind of dialogue we can imagine the droll Elizabeth or prickly Prince Philip saying ("Sleeping in the streets and pulling out their hair for someone they never knew. And they think WE'RE mad!").

Mirren doesn't normally look much like Elizabeth II. She's younger, taller, and prettier. But with some padding and makeup, she manages to BECOME Elizabeth II. She's dignified, haughty, yet Mirren manages to bring across that she's bewildered and vulnerable as well. In short, she makes her version of Elizabeth II a person.

She's also backed by magnificent performances by Sheen and James Cromwell. Cromwell is excellent as the crotchety, stubborn Prince Philip, who thinks the best way to deal with grief is to go hunting. And Sheen is very good as the Prime Minister who is just starting his work, and who gains a new perspective on the royals.

"The Queen" is a unique, quietly compelling film, as it explores what might have happened within the royal family -and the person that Queen Elizabeth might be, underneath the royal mask.

Want The Queen (2006) Discount?

It's hard to imagine a better drama. Although one of my fellow reviewers decided to spend the time sharing with us what asinine things he thought of while watching the film, I will simply say that this crew has brought us a wonderful, well-acted performance of a witty script. Watch this and just savor the chemistry between the queen and prime minister and it's so interesting being an American and watching how the monarchy functions.

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