“I declare that my whole life, rather it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.”
It would, of course, be an unusually long life in which Queen Elizabeth II would give her all in service. Fifteen prime ministers and fourteen U.S. presidents would come and go during her reign. The Cold War, the Space Race, and the Information Age would rise and reshape the world, in good ways and bad. Through it all, Elizabeth acted as a living link, not just to the glittering aristocracy of a different time, but also of a spiritually fortified nation that survived the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. Admirers would call her a model of stoic resilience. Critics could label her as chilly and aloof. But after seventy years, no one could deny that Elizabeth II delivered on her vow of service.
Such a life is too big for any one movie or book, and therefore a daunting challenge to anyone who dares the project of a biography. With The Queen, director Stephen Frears (The Grifters) and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Crown, Frost/Nixon) make the wise decision of carving out a major event in Elizabeth’s (Helen Mirren) life, and examining not only its effects on her, but on British society as a whole. Most of Morgan’s screenplay centers on the aftermath of Princess Diana’s sudden death, and the drama that emerges on three fronts: The outpouring of public grief, Elizabeth’s bewildered reaction to it, and her tense exchanges with Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), the young, newly-elected prime minister who attempts to stage-manage both ends of the crisis at once.
The film also takes a frank look at the complicated emotions that bubble up in the wake of this tragedy: Elizabeth’s ambiguous feelings toward Diana, which seem to blend consternation, muted jealousy, and even a dash of admiration. She must also confront her frosty relationship with Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), who secretly shares Mr. Blair’s progressive socio-political views. Finally, Elizabeth struggles to accept Mr. Blair’s assertion that Diana’s death puts the monarchy into an existential crisis, wherein the public expects the Windsors to put aside tradition and grieve with the commoners, or else be abolished altogether.
From top to bottom, The Queen is a showcase of brilliant performances. Mirren strikes that rare balance of capturing the Queen’s mannerisms, without resorting to an all-out imitation. Her Elizabeth would seem to be a psychological contradiction–well-armored, but also quietly vulnerable. (Indeed, when the Queen has an inevitable breakdown, it happens in total isolation. Frears even does Her Majesty the dignity of filming her muffled sobs from behind.) We feel for Elizabeth, even in her most unflattering moments. Mirren won a very justified Oscar for her work here.
As Blair, Sheen is every bit her equal. Or, put more accurately, Blair represents the Queen’s perfect counterpoint: He’s liberal, informal, and adaptable. (Furthermore, his charismatic handling of the media represents something Elizabeth found so irksome in Diana.) Meanwhile, Blair must grapple with his own complex feelings. Yes, the Queen can be haughty and distant, but there’s also something undeniably noble and magnanimous about her. Even as his staff puts her down, Blair can’t hide the growing affection and pity he feels for Elizabeth.
Everyone else plays their part to note perfection. James Cromwell turns in fine work as Prince Phillip, Elizabeth’s longtime companion. We see Phillip as loving and loyal, but also displaying the gaffe-prone and dilettantish tendencies that would blight the entire royal family’s reputation as a bunch of powdered-wig fuddy duddies. Sylvia Syms also deserves special praise for capturing the Queen Mother’s acerbic wit.
The Queen will draw inevitable comparisons to The Crown, the outstanding series on Netflix. Now entering its fifth season, that show allows Morgan to paint Elizabeth’s life on a sweeping canvas, and give proper attention to more events and historical figures than even a series of movies ever could. Taken together, The Queen functions as a kind of companion piece, magnifying one moment and how it not only changed her, but our collective perceptions of her. If you enjoy one of these, I’ll guarantee your enjoyment of the other.
Beyond its place in Morgan’s royal storyscape, The Queen makes for a beautiful, highly cinematic experience. The cinematography (Affonso Beato) and score (Alexandre Desplat) are Oscar-caliber, thus making the film feel that much more opulent. This never has the aesthetic of a glorified stage play.
In the end, The Queen essentially bottles what will make Elizabeth II one of the most memorable monarchs in history. She was strong, savvy, quick-witted, and proud–an embodiment of the best traits of her country. By the end of the film, we feel like we know her a little better. We admire her a little more. After all, Elizabeth’s vow of service wasn’t just a collection of words: She met with a new prime minister just two days before her death. Her unusually long life was drawing to a close, but Queen Elizabeth would have it no other way. She was devoted, all the way to the end.
103 min. PG-13. HBOMax.