Released 2006. Director: Stephen Frears
WHEN QUEEN ELIZABETH II WAS TOLD THAT PRINCESS DIANA HAD DIED, she was alleged to have said, “Was she wearing my jewellery?” We never do find out if that was just a rumour in Stephen Frear’s superior movie about the queen. But what we do get out of it is more than what her majesty would ever allow anyone to. As one of the most recognisable public figures in the world, the queen is simultaneously an extremely private person.
Peter Morgan’s script, written in guarded speech, is built mainly on the interactions between the queen and Tony Blair, her then new prime minister, on the week Diana died. The script seems to know exactly what went on behind closed doors at a time that threatened the British monarchy. In a series of scenes marvellously built on suggestions, the queen grapples with an annoying incomprehension about the need for an outlet for the public outpouring of grief. All she is prepared to concede to is a private funeral. It is easy to accuse the queen of being hopelessly entrenched in the past, cocooned in exclusive privilege and having lost touch with public sentiments. The movie teases us to criticise the queen. Yet she is merely carrying out her duty in the strict way she has been taught all her life. Indeed there are protocols and nobody, including the queen, should bend the rules to favour any individual, least of all someone who is officially no longer a member of the royal family.
Is the movie objective enough to portray the queen in a difficult situation? The Queen Mother and Prince Philip think she should stay her course. Prince Charles argues for flexibility. The queen repeatedly defends her stand as a way to protect the two young princes against further public exposure in bereavement.
In two separate scenes – the queen’s sublime sighting of an elk, and subsequent sympathy for the dead animal – the movie illustrates the queen’s rarely seen tenderness, simultaneously and ironically telling us how much less she feels for her ex-daughter-in-law killed in a horrific accident.
Is it fear, compassion, political tactic, or something else entirely, that makes the queen give the green light to her prime minister’s advice eventually? In the process we glimpse a powerful woman handcuffed by the tradition of her institution, her heart unable or unwilling to share public empathy.
The queen has never been seen in such a vulnerable, unguarded manner. Every moment of this finely-tuned tussle of funeral preparation belongs to Helen Mirren, who telegraphs the isolation, the authority and the self-doubt in an unforgettable, imperial performance. All hail Queen Helen.