There are a remarkably few mainstream films about the contemporary soul of Great Britain. We are all accustomed to the prim-and-proper aesthetic of films like “Pride and Prejudice” or “Remains of the Day.” Also familiar are the cheeky, mildly irreverent movies starring Hugh Grant (“Four Weddings and A Funeral”) or that puckering American girl who played “Bridget Jones.” (It is so unfortunate they were unable to find one capable English actress to star as the quintessential modern British woman.)
What is so remarkable and valuable about English director Stephen Frears’ two most recent films, “Mrs. Henderson Presents” and his latest “The Queen,” is that they are distinctly British while at the same time being fresh and revealing about the culture that loosed the American colonies.
“The Queen” is a showcase for the incredible talents of Helen Mirren, who manages to both become the stoic, calculating Queen of England and gracefully humanize a woman whose life few people could begin to understand, let alone relate to.
The movie is primarily the day-by-day account of the week of Diana Princess of Wales’ sudden and tragic death while in Paris on August 31, 1997. The film details the efforts of newly anointed Prime Minister Tony Blair to modernize the English political model and influence the reluctant British Royals to embrace Diana’s memory and social contributions along with the rest of the country, before they submarine the Monarchy itself by publicly rejecting her.
Frears utilizes a hefty amount of actual news reels, interviews and footage from Diana’s funeral, weaving both the movie world and real world together in a compelling tapestry of visuals told through skilled actors, real people and even Diana herself.
The plodding pace of the story may somewhat mirror that of the Royal demeanor. Over the course of the film it becomes evident that in addition to a complete document of the events of the time, “The Queen” is also a smart look at the very moment when the modern political structure of England changed. The push and pull of ideas has finally given way and Blair emerges as the ideal emissary to lead the new charge and also bridge the gap between the old and new. British actor Michael Sheen (“Underworld”) – no relation to the American thespian institution of Sheen – does an equally impressive job with Blair as Mirren does with her Majesty.
There is a spectacular moment at the beginning of the film when Mirren as the Queen is sitting for a painted portrait and turns from her emotionless pose to directly address the camera just as the title comes up. It got a huge laugh from the audience and made me wonder if the film would have more of the type of quirky beats we are familiar with from Wes Anderson in movies like “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Unfortunately, that was the one and only direct Queen-to-audience connection. Even though it might not have been entirely appropriate for the tone or character, it would have been interesting if Frears had played more with this kind of unexpected humor.
There isn’t a lot fun about “The Queen.” It has its funny moments and it does an admirable job unraveling the Royal Family and their experience with dueling Dianas – the Diana the public had come to adore and the Diana they knew at home. Much of the humor in the film comes from the interactions between Blair and his wife as they struggle to “get” the role and position of the Royals.
Frears proves with “The Queen” that his body of work is among the most uniquely revealing sources in cinema about the modern British identity. “The Queen” deserves a bigger release in the states, but likely won’t get the attention it deserves until Oscar time when Mirren and Sheen are likely candidates for nominations.