The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, February 03, 2007


The Queen
: Stephen Frears
: Peter Morgan
: Andy Harries, Christine Langan, Tracey Seaward
: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam

Helen Mirren must do two things to make
The Queen succeed as a movie. First she must convince us that she is Elizabeth II – the woman who, at age 25, assumed monarchal reign over the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth Realm, thus becoming the most powerful head of state in the world, and has ruled for over a half-century through a tumultuous modern era. Second – she must compel us to believe that this human, intimate side we glimpse, a side hidden behind a thick jungle of hereditary privilege and ritual, accurately represents the private woman beneath the public crown.

She succeeds at both brilliantly in this film, and is almost sure to win an Academy Award for her efforts; but the success of this graceful, quiet drama goes beyond her performance. Peter Morgan’s intelligent screenplay finds, in the events of the week following Princess Diana’s death in that tragic auto accident in Paris in 1997, the essential purpose of dramatizing true-life events. With wit and a delicate sense for candor, he telescopes British society’s struggle to define what monarchy means for it in the modern age, and expresses it through the debate that ensued over what The Palace should do after “The Peoples’ Princess” died.

This was an unfathomable event at the end of a long chain of unfathomable events. Diana had her “fairy tale wedding” to Prince Charles, matured and raised children under unfathomable scrutiny and public criticism, struggled to express her identity and heart in the midst of an unhappy, mutually-unfaithful wedding; and then after an unprecedented royal divorce, became a kind of ambassador without portfolio, still carrying her fame around her neck. And then, as she was exploring new love, she died in a horrible accident.

As we see, this impacts the royal family on many levels. Although she disapproved of the scandal and what she saw as undignified public behavior, the Queen is grieved and concerned for her grandchildren. Her husband Prince Phillip (James Cromwell) takes them on one hunting expedition after another – the grounds at Balmoral Castle are a respite from the press and he knows little else of what to do with them. Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) seems disjointed and unable to cope – he’s preoccupied with the odd idea that someone’s going to try and assassinate him after this.

Isolated as this family is, he still senses the public does not hold him in high esteem. The Queen is more admired, but also more cocooned; which does not make her unkind, simply insensitive to what her people now expect of their royals. She is, in a sense, the first Queen of the television age, and does not perceive how her family has become a favorite drama of her subjects.

Through all this Mirren presents glimpses of Elizabeth the woman – the grandmother and dog lover who doesn’t mind getting feet muddy as she tromps around the grounds, but must also live up to a public standard of decorum she has maintained so persistently as to largely escape notice these days. It is a role that draws on all Mirren’s subtlety and wisdom as a performer – the knowledge of when to trust her script and fellow actors, when to simply let the moment happen.

The Queen knows that Diana was not officially a Princess anymore, and the cries in the press for her to lower the flag at Buckingham to half-mast are sentimental and illogical – the flag flies to depict her presence, and it’s never been put to half-mast for anyone. The press and public seem to be foisting new, made-up rituals on her from every direction, and none of it makes sense. The idea of a royal funeral with rock stars and Hollywood actors in attendance is shocking. As people gather in the streets and pile flowers at the gates of Buckingham, and Elizabeth and Philip watch it on the television from their bed in Balmoral (“Move over, cabbage” Philip affectionately prods as he climbs under the covers), it seems to them a kind of madness, and something that will surely pass.

But there’s a new Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who is beginning his tenure with the understanding that the British people want to mourn Diana – and the more effectively he enables this, the more it emphasizes that the elected government is running things, and the royals are simply peculiar outcasts who own all the best houses. The better he serves, the more he unwittingly supplants. Yet the people want their Queen to make a show of something, to represent their grief. To stand as a dignified emblem of the national mood is not the role Elizabeth was tutored and groomed for, but the more she digs in and resists this role, the louder the clamor becomes.

In many ways The Queen is about the gulf between Her Royal Highness and Mr. Blair. Blair is an eager and ambitious reformer, prone to fouling up protocol – an attendant reminds him that when addressing Her Majesty, it is “Ma’am as in ‘ham’, not Ma’am as in ‘farm’.” Director Stephen Frears does a fine job contrasting the two heads of state – the camerawork at Balmoral is austere, basking in the elegant polish of the furniture, while in Blair’s domain it is jittery, the colors subdued. He’s in his living room delicately trying to coax a public statement out of the sovereign ruler of sixteen nations, while his wife (Helen McRory) is setting fish sticks on the table.

She sees no need for her husband to be so deferential to this hereditary figurehead. His staff makes sniggering comments about her as if she’s simply a soap opera character making bad choices. But if Blair is to sway her he must understand the value she puts in tradition and dignity, and learn that these things are England as well.

As The Queen depicts it, the British people understand that royalty is not something ordained by God, and it doesn’t hold ultimate power over their lives. They’ve embraced elected government. Yet their demands show that they are not so ready to be rid of the institution. The movie opens with a portrait being painted of Her Majesty, and ends with her in front of a television camera – she is the face of her empire. The Queen finds a way to embrace all this – not pedantically but with excellent sympathy and a magnificent sort of completeness. As Mr. Blair does, you may be surprised, at the end, to realize how much you understand and respect Her Majesty.


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