The Queen

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

8 February

Elizabeth II proclaimed queen of UK, 1952

On this day in 1952, Elizabeth II was proclaimed queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. She had actually become queen two days earlier, on the death of her father, George VI, which she heard about while on a tour of Kenya. Proclamations were read out starting the next day. But according to time zone or geographical location, some parts of the new queen’s realm had not completed the formalities until the day after that. In keeping with protocol, the queen took different titles in different jurisdictions; in some she was also the head of the church and was accorded the title Defender of the Faith, an honour granted to Henry VIII by the Pope.

The Queen (2006, dir: Stephen Frears)

A film about the chaos caused by the death of Princess Diana in 2007 – or Diana, Princess of Wales as she was styled. That styling – the all-important comma in her title – is the axle on which this film turns. Was Diana, now divorced from her husband and a commoner by birth, royal at all? What was the protocol when someone of her status, if not rank, died? And imagine trying to make a movie about a topic that dry.

But that’s what The Queen is – and in the shape of Elizabeth II we have a hard-liner in matters of protocol being weaned off the idea that she should stick to the letter of time-sanctified procedure and instead should accord Diana some of the outward displays – the flags at half mast, for instance – to show that her regal majesty was hurting too, like the countless thousands who had journeyed to the gates of Kensington Palace to lay flowers after the Princess’s untimely death. Did the queen bear Diana any personal animosity? The film does not go there. Instead it is a valiantly patriotic, almost forelock-tugging portrait of a monarch at a time of extreme duress taking time to swing towards the light. This traditionalism seems strange, considering that the film is directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Morgan, neither of whose resumés marks them out as lace-ruffed courtiers (Frears’s democratic bona fides include My Beautiful Laundrette and Dirty Pretty Things; Morgan has The Deal and at this point has just debuted the play Frost/Nixon, which would later become a film). But maybe Morgan and Frears are out to fell bigger beasts: the memory of Diana, and the monster of touchy-feeliness – not to mention the rank smelling mob – that manifested themselves when she died prematurely. Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her portrayal of the queen, cool but not cold, devoted to her country, iron-bound by duty. Michael Sheen deserved one for his Tony Blair, the prime minister who spoke of “the people’s princess” and then had to work hard behind the scenes to persuade the royal family that the right way wasn’t necessarily the proper way to handle her death.

Other roles are less laudable – James Cromwell is struggling as the prickly Prince Philip, Elizabeth’s husband, Sylvia Syms is a fun, pantomime Queen Mother. Morgan’s intelligent screenplay handles the issue carefully, and works hard to avoid the charge of exposition by royal appointment. And he manages it beautifully. When the film came out, The Queen not signified that a sticky moment in the queen’s long reign had been negotiated, it confirmed the monarch as one of the great survivors.

Why Watch?

  • Peter Morgan’s exemplary script
  • Helen Mirren’s tonally perfect performance
  • Michael Sheen’s second of three performances as Tony Blair
  • An honourable though not slavish view of the events

The Queen – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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