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Non-Review Review: The Queen

The middle part of Peter Morgan’s “Blair” trilogy, sitting between The Deal and The Special Relationship, the movie is perhaps better known for its portrayal of the eponymous monarchy than of the controversial British Prime Minister. It’s also a rather wonderful exploration of the British monarchy, and how it struggles to remain in touch with the people that it (nominally, at least) rules, and yet remains heavily insulated from. Taking the death of Princess Diana, perhaps the most trying period in the reign of the current queen, as a jumping-off point, the film wonders what the public expects from their royal family, and how the public and private lives of those born into the family must be balanced.

A skilful portrait...

In fairness to Morgan, it would be easy to make the film a very unambiguous condemnation of the royals. Princess Diana was, as we see Alister Campbell idly scribble on a note pad only an hour or so after her demise, “the People’s Princess.” She was loved by the public for her charity work and charming personalities, rubbed shoulders with world leaders and celebrities – she was an icon to millions, who used the high-profile of her marriage in order to make a difference in the world, engaging with the public in a way that no other member of the House of Windsor did. It would be easy to proclaim her a saint, a hero in this particular story. That would logically make the Windsors, the family that often seemed intent to either smother or distance her, the bad guys in this tale.

However, it’s to Morgan’s credit that the film doesn’t see the world in such stark terms. Diana was a humanitarian and she did some great things, but she was not born into royalty. She was not brought up in the same world of ritual and tradition that her husband was, nor was she bound from childhood by the heavy duty of monarchy. In fact, though there was blame to go around, it was Lady Diana who was relatively vocal in her criticism of the monarchy to the press – she was the person who acknowledged and fueled the public rumours that they hated each other.

Mourner in chief?

I’m not arguing for one moment that she wasn’t treated unfairly, or that she was a victim of public and personal pressure, but also that she was just as capable of applying them. The film acknowledges that she was hounded and victimised by the press, but also that she encouraged them – admittedly often as a means to highlight her charitable causes, but she was smart enough to know she was playing with fire.

Indeed, the smartest thing that Morgan’s screenplay does is to juxtapose the way that Diana and the Queen deal with pressure from the media. We’re informed at the start of the film just how much the tabloids and magazines paid for pictures of Diana and her relationships, and Blair uses the media as a metric of how worn the British public’s patience was becoming. Despite the fact it would be easy to treat the Queen’s cold response to the loss of the mother of her grandchildren, Morgan makes it clear that Her Royal Highness is just as aware of the press as Diana was.

Is the Sheen coming off?

She takes her grandchildren to Balmoral, so as to spare them the media spotlight. When her husband Philip suggests that he might help the children cope for the loss in his own unique way (by taking them deer stalking), she immediately worries, “Well maybe they shouldn’t take their guns, I mean if a photographer were to see them it might send out the wrong signal.” Indeed, on the night of the death, Charles immediately wants to book a private flight to Paris, only to be shot down by his mother, “Isn’t that precisely the sort of extravagance they always attack us for?” It’s clear that the Queen’s response to the press and the paparazzi seeking to intrude on her family is simply to close them all off, and wait for the storm to pass.

In fact, the film dares to suggest that the media is driving this cycle in order to deflect blame from themselves. Alister Campbell is watching footage of Earl Spencer condemning the photographers chasing his sister’s car, and remarks, “You’re picking the wrong villain, mate.” To be fair, the tabloid press was far more deserving of the nation’s score than the family, who are attacked in editorial after editorial.

The monarch's time in the wilderness...

Towards the end of the film, Blair is conversing with the Queen, who wonders why the unfair attack on the institution bothered him so much. He tries to charmingly skirt the question, but she pushes him, suggesting, “Because you saw all those headlines and you thought: ‘One day that might happen to me’… and it will, Mr. Blair. Quite suddenly and without warning…” Given how his tenure as Prime Minister ended, Morgan makes the whole sequence of events seem like foreshadowing of the things to come. It’s also a nice way to give the movie a great deal of relevance for Blair, who is the thread that ties together these three films.

The monarchy is out of touch with the mood of the British public at that time, with the Queen in particular unsure what to make of everything that is happening. It would be easy to paint the characters as shallow and uncaring, or even to take the idea to the other extreme and paint them as poor, helpless victims, but the screenplay is full of nuance. Charles breaks down when he sees the body of his ex-wife, but is still trying to move his mother into the (literal and metaphorical) firing line. Philip is well-intentioned, but old-fashioned and borderline unstable. The Queen Mother is simultaneously the most compassionate (urging Charles to take the plane they have ready for her in case she suddenly dies) and the most outdated (urging her daughter not to give an inch).

Queen of Hearts?

At one point, sick of all the sniping that his staff have been making at the expense of the family, Blair makes it clear that their reluctance to engage is completely understandable. “You know, when you get it wrong, you really get it wrong! That woman has given her whole life in service to her people. Fifty years doing a job SHE never wanted! A job she watched kill her father. She’s executed it with honor, dignity, and, as far as I can tell, without a single blemish, and now we’re all baying for her blood! All because she’s struggling to lead the world in mourning for someone who… who threw everything she offered back in her face. And who, for the last few years, seemed committed 24/7 to destroying everything she holds most dear!” There are two sides to every story, and nobody is entirely right or entirely wrong – and that’s the key to good drama.

Is the Queen meant to be a puppet pulled along to the strings of public opinion? Is she supposed to give the public what they think they want, day in and day out? Or is she, as she suggests, intended to serve as something greater than that? Is the monarchy designed to provide a sense of purpose and continuity? She reminds Blair, in a scene it’s probable the real Blair “borrowed” for his memoirs, that he is her tenth Prime Minister. She’s lived through the dismantling of the British Empire. She saw her father serve as a patriotic figurehead during the Second World War. Is she meant to embody the “quiet dignity” she suggests that the world appreciates in the British people? These are all good questions, and it’s to Morgan’s credit that he doesn’t come down on one side or the other.

I heard the news today, oh boy...

That said, while the film is well-written and well-directed, I did find some of it just a bit on the nose. In particular, a sub-plot about a deer that Philip and the boys are stalking through the estate, which becomes something of a powerful emotional moment for the eponymous monarchy. It just feels a bit too heavy on the symbolism, and more than a little bit familiar – it was a similar moment that gave us the emotional climax of The Deer Hunter, after all.

The film is wonderfully impressive. It’s easily the best looking of the three films in the cycle, with its swooping helicopter shots of seemingly infinite country estates and sweeping classic soundtrack. The two lead performances are beyond superb. Helen Mirren picked up an Oscar for her role as the Queen, but – while I really enjoyed it – I can’t help but feel that Michael Sheen somewhat outshines her as Blair. It’s a performance which is a little bit impersonation, but also quite a great deal on invention. It would be easy to turn Blair into a joke – he’s perhaps the most distinctive Prime Minister since Churchill, with his perpetual smile, dramatic pause and occasional emphatic hand movement – but here (as in the other films), he feels like a real character. Although he’s a secondary focus of the plot, there are some lovely moments which feature the family settling into their roles – I especially like the fact he does the dishes and eats fish fingers, even as a world leader.

It's all up in the air...

There are some hints of what’s to come here, as Morgan develops his portrait of Blair. We’re repeatedly told how much of a reformer Blair is, even though he doesn’t seem to do anything radical (questioning the use of a hyperbolic “revolutionary?”) and seems to exist to preserve and protect the establishment. It’s often been written that Blair was a Conservative in Liberal clothing, and it’s clear Morgan believes that (at least to an extent). We’re reminded that his father was a Tory, and his supportive attitude towards the royal family is juxtaposed against the attitudes of those around him.

It’s a great little film. It’s clever and well made, a sharp exploration of not only the monarchy as it enters the twenty-first century, but Britain as a whole. It’s a wonderfully written piece of cinema which skilfully captures relatively recent history on film, which is no small accomplishment.

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