Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Queen (2006)

The Queen (2006)

The Queen has sort of sprung up as an awards contender this year, and more than a few commentators have expressed surprise. I'm not a commentator, but I'll add my surprise to the list - I'm surprised people are surprised, because it's actually very good and because films that aren't as good have been award contenders in the past. It isn't a particularly brilliant film, but it's quite unique and revolves around some very strong performances, with Helen Mirren in particular being exceptional (she's definitely deserving of the accolades).

The Queen is, as the title suggests, about the Queen. To be more specific, it's a biographical look at a particularly difficult week for Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) - the week following the death of Princess Diana. The film begins with the victory of Tony Blair's (Michael Sheen) Labour party in the 1997 general elections. It depicts the first official meeting between the new Prime Minister and the Queen, which immediately highlights the tension that exists between the relatively young Blair who promises change and modernization, and the distinctly 'old fashioned' monarch.

Months later, Princess Diana is killed in a car crash. Blair and his team are quick to gauge public sentiment and respond quickly and appropriately to the incident by making a formal statement. The Royal Family, who are on holiday in Scotland, treat the matter as a private affair and refuse to react publicly (the bad blood between the Royal Family and the Princess is also alluded to). As the public react to the incident with an unprecedented display of grief, Blair's popularity goes through the roof because of his display of sympathy and compassion. As the week progresses and the (public) funeral proceedings draw near, the monarchy is slowly vilified for their failure to react. It becomes Blair's responsibility to convince the Queen, who holds steadfastly to her belief that the matter is being overblown, that it is in the best interest of the Royal Family to respond.

The film essentially revolves around two characters, Tony Blair and the Queen, but it is the Queen (and by extension the monarchy) that is at the heart of the story. Blair represents a counterpoint to the monarchy (the new vs. the old) and acts as a stimulus for the Queen, constantly making her aware of how the situation is spiralling out of control. The primary story thread is about the Queen's gradual realization and acceptance of the fact that the world around her has changed, and that the monarchy has become completely out of touch with the rest of the nation. The grieving on display is incomprehensible for someone who grew up during the War and who was brought up to be stoic in the face of adversity. She is forced to deal with the conflicting internal pressure from her family and the external pressure from Blair and the public.

'The Queen' is a dialogue heavy drama that revolves around performances. It primarily features 'stagey' indoor scenes and archival footage, with a few outdoor sequences. Visually it's quite uninteresting, save for the production and design that emphasizes the differences between Blair's modern, down to earth world and the quaint and archaic world of the Royals. Director Stephen Frears doesn't really bring much to the table that isn't script or performance based. Speaking of which, the script, regardless of how accurate it is (let's face it, most of it has to be made up), does a fine job of representing the different viewpoints and characters, and is laced with a healthy does of humour throughout. In many ways, the tone of the film veers towards the comical - the behaviour of both Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) and Prince Philip (James Cromwell) seem true but are nonetheless hilarious, and the rigidly formal interactions between the Queen and the hapless Blair are almost laugh out loud funny despite not being overtly comical. Perhaps the quaintness of it all is just inherently funny in this day and age, but there's no doubt that the filmmakers pushed it into comedy territory.

Helen Mirren is fantastic as the titular Queen. Her portrayal is full of subtlety - there are no big emotional scenes. She's full of 'stiff upper lip' stoicism but also lets through enough emotion to let the audience know what's going through her mind, whether it's anger and frustration, grief, or a sense of isolation and loss. All this while being quite accurate (at least to my untrained eye) to the mannerisms of the real Queen. Michael Sheen is also excellent as Tony Blair, and captures the quirks of the UK Prime Minister quite well despite being a tad too wimpy in some of the early scenes. James Cromwell, Helen McCrory (as Cherie Blair), Alex Jennings and Sylvia Syms (as the Queen Mother) all turn in very strong (and often very funny) supporting performances.

Overall I'd say The Queen is a very good film that deals with fairly unique subject matter - or rather, it deals with subject matter (Royalty) in a unique contemporary setting. While the film is memorable and full of excellent performances and writing, it still lacks that certain 'something' that can make a small scale drama like this seem like a grand achievement. Worth a watch, but not really a must see.

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