Dir. Stephen Frears. Starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell
The hoi polloi being interviewed about Diana’s death are certainly passionate, if nothing else, and in their grief they look for someone to blame. The royal family becomes the obvious target—although only an ironical Blair aide makes the case that the Windsors literally killed her—and so the public seizes on anything they can. One man cries, Why don’t they have a flag at half-mast over Buckingham Palace? There’s not even a flag up at all! In the next scene, Philip (Cromwell) cantankerously seizes on the criticism. That’s the royal standard, he says. It means the sovereign is at home. He is making this complaint while looking out on a beautiful scene in Scotland; to him, the criticism is utterly absurd, outside the face of facts. One might as well lament that a horse does not have a zebra’s stripes. Miles away, Tony Blair (Sheen) and his cohort of press-savvy politicos wonder about how they can save the monarchy, a group of myopic self-important fools from itself. It is a classic case of “Everybody is stupid except for me,” which never does seem to resolve gracefully for any of the parties involved. Nor does it end smoothly for these people. Blair manages to talk Elizabeth (Mirren) and her family out of their Scottish getaway, she eats some televised crow, and we all learn a lot more about the foibles of Tony Blair than he wanted us to know. (I can see the promos for the sequel now: “You thought this was unflattering? Get a load of how he handles Iraq!”)
In that sequence, and in several others throughout the film, the ouroboros of monarchy evinces itself. The queen and her family are living history, a traditional group brought up for a traditional purpose. The Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) says in a walk with her daughter that she is a part of a line which stretches back a millennium; people who think of their past so vividly, almost at the drop of a hat, are not the right ones to make sudden changes. But the movie also argues that people are not looking for standard-bearers of tradition but friendly affirmers; they want a weather vane, not a banner. No one is quite sure, then, how to proceed. Blair and his ilk (and, incidentally, the country) want Queen Elizabeth to echo the public mood, for if she cannot face the state of which she is the head, then what purpose does she really serve? Queen Elizabeth wants to react to the tragedy of Diana’s death in a hundred ways, from vague personal relief to reiterating historical example to respecting the wishes of the Spencer family for a private funeral. But she does not want to react in this new way, which seems to implicate her somehow, pointing a finger and making her feel victimized. When Blair calls Elizabeth to tell her that twenty-five percent of Britons, in a recent poll, favor abolishing the monarchy, it is a blow to the heart. The movie casts it as ungratefulness, nearly, towards the woman who has been in a position of constant scrutiny for forty-five years. In the hands of a different observer, it might well be cast as “Only twenty-five percent? Is the entire nation deluded?” One character refers to the Windsors as “emotionally retarded nutters,” but if they are fools then so is just about everyone else. The film does not push on the meaning of Diana’s death to a larger number of people, does not give anyone but Philip a voice in wondering what exactly they found so compelling about tabloid royalty. Nor does the movie prod the masses’ unquestioning sympathy for a group of people who believe they rule by the will of God.
The personal feelings of the characters complicate and stretch the ouroboros. Philip’s reactionary zeal could be bottled into a tonic that would bring back the Bourbons in France, and in the face of press scrutiny he stiffens. Charles (Alex Jennings) is terrified that the incensed mob will turn on him, who only divorced their precious princess the year before; his scenes apologize endlessly for Diana, either by way of criticizing Elizabeth’s motherhood compared to Diana’s or through an out-and-out murder accusation levied at the press. Blair is presented as something of a tyro, yielding primarily to Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley) at work and maybe not even the one wearing the pants at home; his wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory) never misses a chance to pick at the Windsors for some failure or another. Elizabeth herself proves to be a tougher nut to crack than we might have given her credit for being, with historical motivations being the toughest meat to extricate. Edward VIII and George VI, her uncle and father, respectively, were major influences on her style. Edward’s abdication of the throne, i.e. his responsibility, has influenced Elizabeth’s steadfastness; George’s premature death, attributed to the fact of his accession in the movie (and in real life probably had more to do with the fact that George was a chain smoker with lung cancer, but hey, the narrative) has proven the seriousness of the job. There is a maze of motivations here, and Peter Morgan writes his way through them with general skill. In the end, he begins to lose his touch a little bit—there are an awful lot of monologues in the last half-hour or so which tell instead of show—but on the whole he does well.
It’s simply that one could do without those excesses, pushing the movie to a pedantic political center and a repetitive set of moments. Did we need two separate scenes where Blair defends the queen in strident tones, lauding her for her decades of service to the country? (This in a movie where virtually everything Elizabeth does is either defensible because of her upbringing, her station, the ignorance of the commoners, or some combination of all three.) Even in the second one, delivered by Blair to his wife, where she makes a rejoinder about Labour prime ministers falling for the monarch, we cannot view that as a nixing; we’ve seen too many courtroom dramas to believe that a jury can unhear what a lawyer has said and been forced to withdraw. There is an enormous buildup to the Queen’s Speech, which is delivered very much in character by the stoic queen…and yet it doesn’t do much. It is a plot event in a character movie, and it lands with a thud. Everyone applauds after Diana’s brother gives a eulogy mostly about how hot his sister was, but Elizabeth does not budge. Is it a view of her stubbornness? Does it show that she will only bend so far? Or do we know already?
At Balmoral, Philip is leading his recently bereft grandsons on a hunt for a great, elusive stag. It’s meant to keep their minds off their grief and put them out in the fresh air, which is certainly a very phlegmatic solution to handling grief. When her jeep breaks down, Elizabeth manages to find the stag that her husband and grandchildren are hunting; it finds her, really, walking a few feet away from her vehicle. She is first struck by the beauty of the animal, but quickly breaks out of her reverie. “Shoo!” she says to it, remembering where she is and what her family is up to. The animal disappears after she turns around, scanning the horizon for armed men, and she smiles to herself a little. Later on, she finds out that an investment banker staying at Balmoral managed to wound the animal before it was finally brought down; she goes to visit the decapitated corpse and everything. There’s a metaphor here which we’ll ignore because it’s blunt and clumsily written, rather like the bit with the shoes in Morgan’s later, piddling Frost/Nixon. More interesting is the insight into Elizabeth herself, who has been, if not crusty, a little distant throughout. It is a moment of humanity, the sort that Blair and Campbell have been trying to pry out of her for days. And it shows us something important about the queen: she is at heart a gentle person, perhaps even with a sentiment for the underdog. She recognizes that the deer is better off alive than dead; she hopes for him rather than for the hunters. It is probably Mirren’s best scene, who is good but who is mostly put through the paces of “old British woman with Received Pronunciation” throughout the movie. This requires no extra labor in Mirren’s voice, either for crispness or fatigue, but in her face.