Opening with the current British monarch regretting the fact that she is ineligible to vote, Stephen Frears’ new film immediately puts the royalty cart before the horse. As she is having her portrait done, the queen, Helen Mirren-- in a role surely she was born to perfectly caricature--exasperates on the impartiality she must retain in matters of state. Her bored resignation lifts to unexpressed delight however when the court portraitist pauses to remind her that no matter who forms the government, it will be hers to command. It’s a twist of authoritative power-play that ensnares the film into a type of self-importance that everyone fawns over, including Her Majesty herself.
Regal commands spill from Elizabeth in expected instances and even her dogs are spellbound by her outstretched hand. It is this authority that greets Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) when he comes to Buckingham Palace to seek approval to form the next government. Matching Mirren’s amazing likeness of the queen, Sheen gives a remarkably captivating performance as the newly-elected PM and shadows his sly affability and media-friendly gestures so befit most politicians. In some instances his performance eclipses Mirren’s own because hers is held in check by assumption (Queen Elizabeth being so notoriously camera shy that not a lot is known of her inner mind). Sheen has a wider canvass to work with so his role is easier to be held up to scrutiny.
The film would’ve been pretty interesting just watching the nervy inroads Blair tries to make with the queen and her attempt to keep him at arms length but Princess Diana dies suddenly in a car crash in Paris and the royal family decides to treat it as if it were news only to be mentioned in passing. It’s a ploy that backfires and one that plunges the monarchy into its most self-effacing moment in modern times. To the film’s credit, it works its angles sharply, but ends up well short of the dramatic heat that the situation demanded. This makes for a rather restrained, bloodless film, one that will surely be admired but one that doesn’t deeply involve anything but its own self-interest. It does whet one’s appetite though for a sort of triangular involvement. That proves not to be ultimately a triadic monarchy but very much Elizabeth, Blair and the posthumous Diana all in a tussle for the same thing: adoration. The film initially sides against the queen not only because she has the most to lose but also because she is the singular permanent fixture in the equation. It calls her endurance into question yet reveres it in its natural state. It demands that she sheds it temporarily then put it all together again, for public affectation.
Elizabeth registers this ‘change’ unwillingly and slowly. Her ‘stay the course’ approach to Diana’s demise is encouraged by palace insiders but, watching the news reports clamoring for a response from her, her resolve begins to unravel. Stephen Frears (who directed the brilliant ‘Dangerous Liaisons’) fails to capitalize fully on these dire moments of emotional disconnect. As Diana mania swells on the television, Elizabeth is glued to the cold reality of a woman far more popular within her realm. Diana is not only humanized as a person but her death at such a young age immortalizes her beauty forever. The queen sits up in bed having a hard time figuring out why the public adores Diana, a divorcee without any official royal ties other that her children. Mirren’s wonderfully creased facial expressions are well-etched. These precious moments of self-doubt are not allowed to fill out long enough however, making for an unflattering, ham-fisted look at the royals.
The video footage of Diana is so heavily favorable that it makes the resentment from the royals look insupportable. Prince Phillip in particular—James Cromwell with a perpetual scowl—abhors her name to the point of discomfort but without video footage or flashbacks to show any basis for such abhorrence, he remains oddly discomforting, without any human attribute. Even more astonishing is the distanced view of Elizabeth towards her immediate family: there isn’t a single scene with her comforting Prince William or Harry or even a thought spared to the bereaved Charles. The relationship with her husband is frosty at best and oddly conciliatory with her mother. Why Frears throws so much weight behind this indifference is unclear, in fact very ironic because all too briefly we see Mirren’s subtle wrestling with doubt behind the mask of control.
The film’s most potent scenes occur towards the end: Elizabeth finally bends to the wishes of her subjects and feigns to show ‘emotion’ over Diana’s death by scrolling past the throng of supporters to read epitaphs on the hundreds of flowers outside palace grounds. She faces the public will with as much dignity as she can muster. She encounters a little girl holding flowers and offers to put them on the heap for her. When the little girl refuses, Elizabeth’s face crumbles in a type of dignified loss. It recovers quickly however when the girl tells her that the flowers are for her. In such spaces Mirren shines because her gift has always been minimalism and compactness. She breaks away from the support of Diana to support of her own royal duty with an ease that only comes with repetition. It allows the crowd satisfaction on two fronts: one, the outpouring of grief for Diana is legitimate and needs to be regarded as such and two, the queen must administer the grief herself as mother of the nation. It is this elucidation that hits Elizabeth as she surrenders totally to the televised tribute, which Mirren delivers with such deadpan brilliance that it’s wretched to watch.
It’s a hollow speech, minced grudgingly and received with similar hollowness by the very people who should get the most satisfaction out of it. Blair’s team of advisors relish this victory of modernism but are chided by the PM for pushing too far an issue that will not come to much anyway. He realizes the possible motive of abolishing the monarchy may come up and withdraws from it. A queen, like any ruler, is hard to dislodge and Blair recognizes the duplicity of his actions. Blair realizes that he was never in control of the situation all along, just caught up in its tide that could swiftly turn into a tsunami. His calculated affability is tempered by need and desire. An opportunist from the start, he intends to ride his popular election victory to whatever purpose it can serve him. He does this by controlling the controversy with a shaman’s guile. With his technocrats abuzz, Blair sets out to manipulate public perception, imagining himself as the great communicator between both sides. His plans however, in the end, tilt decidedly in favor with the queen (indeed, the film lays itself prostate to her—not Diana-- as no other national issue is featured in this the initial months of Blair’s rule). His nervy telephone conversations with her feel like a chess game, one where he sees a checkmate possibility but is unsure if the giddy advantage should be hinted on or not.. It’s a traitorous feeling, one which Elizabeth senses and thus she holds out against him right through and even more so after things settle. Her every gesture towards him indicates that surviving crises is what being a ruler is all about. More presciently she warns him of a time when he will be the one out of touch with public favor. She reminds him, ‘duty first, self second.’ It’s a smart device by Frears to reverse the authoritative twist that the film began with: Elizabeth now performing her royal function of assuring someone in need of assurance. Though it takes the death of her erstwhile step-daughter to scuttle her into action, this is simply what was required of her from the very beginning.