November 15, 2006
Prior to the release of Stephen Frears’s film The Queen, media coverage suggested that Frears had little use for the institution whose current representative he had chosen as his subject. “The whole institution is quite ludicrous, so it’s easy to make them seem even more ridiculous than they are. That’s what goes on all the time in England; there’s a constant mockery,” Frears was quoted as saying. “But we were focused on quite the opposite, on their human qualities as people denied a real life in a way. The Queen recently had her 80th birthday and it seems from a lot of the articles written that many people agree that, while the institution is idiotic and inappropriate, the woman is extraordinary.”
As if such smug republican assumptions on the part of the director weren’t bad enough, the New York Times’s neo-Jacobin critic Manohla Dargis invited those “who think more crowned heads should have rolled in the 18th century” to “cozy up to ‘The Queen,’ a sublimely nimble evisceration of that cult of celebrity known as the British royal family" in which the crisis after Diana’s death "solidifies Blair’s power, bringing the monarchy one step closer to the oblivion it deserves."
Those of us who do not agree that the British monarchy deserves “oblivion” need not have worried. As traditionalist political commentator Lawrence Auster once observed, “[s]ometimes the non-liberal truth of a film’s material is so compelling that it overrides the conscious liberal dispositions of its director.” The Queen is one of those films, and Helen Mirren’s magnificent performance will resonate far more deeply with the monarchy’s admirers than with its detractors.
The plot of The Queen does not need to be thoroughly summarized, witnessed as the real events on which it is based were by much of the world less than a decade ago. The film focuses on the unique and difficult week following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, during which a media-fueled chorus compels the royal family to abandon traditional stiff-upper-lip reserve and return from Balmoral to London to mourn with the grieving public. Initially resistant, eventually the Queen agrees to bow to the pressure and address her subjects from Buckingham Palace, with a sense of a mutually affectionate relationship between monarch and people restored.
We see how then new Prime Minister Tony Blair (portrayed with uncanny realism by Michael Sheen), is caught between what he sees as the two extremes of the royal family’s inability to read the public mood and the crude republicanism of his wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) and assistant Alistair Campbell (Mark Bazely), who lack the slightest sense of gratitude for the Queen’s half-century of service. One wonders whether the real Blair ever lashed out at them as Sheen does so eloquently in this movie, but Sheen’s performance is remarkable for its ability to persuade even a firmly anti-Blair royalist viewer such as myself to see Blair in a slightly more favorable light, if only for the duration of the film. Given that the consistently snide Mrs. Blair and Mr. Campbell, rather than any of the Windsors, are the closest this film comes to having “villains,” it is difficult to see how anyone could interpret The Queen as a republican tract.
Queen Elizabeth II, the second longest serving head of state in the world (after the King of Thailand) and certainly the world’s most famous monarch, is one of the great figures of our time. Only a minority of people now living can remember a time when she was not reigning. She is a paradox in that while few people are more well-known, the Queen remains an enigma, an intensely private person who has never granted an interview. Helen Mirren’s portrayal is as close as most of us are likely to ever come to catching a glimpse of the private Queen Elizabeth. As other critics have observed, one almost forgets that one is watching an actress. Without ever deviating from a believable interpretation of the monarch’s real personality, Mirren demonstrates that the Queen’s legendary reserve is anything but “heartless” but rather reflects the dignity of a heroic generation that had suffered deprivations far more severe than the death of a beloved princess and did not understand the ostentatious mourning displayed and demanded in September 1997.
Perhaps inevitably, The Queen seems to share a flaw with the media coverage of the real events of that time. There is no suggestion that a sizable portion of the British public may not have shared what the media presented as the unanimous opinion of “the people.” Yet surely it was not all of the British nation that hysterically mourned the Princess of Wales while, as Peter Hitchens wrote in The Abolition of Britain, urging the Queen and her family to “snivel in public over the death of Diana” and “fly the wrong flag at half-mast to placate a supposedly enraged populace.” Certainly this was the view of the noisier segment of the public, as represented by many of those who brought flowers to Kensington Palace, appropriately accompanied in the movie by Alexandre Desplat’s menacing music. But others did not bring flowers, nor share the sentiments of those denouncing the royal family in TV interviews or threatening floral card messages, and it is doubtful that the Queen’s older subjects in particular were quite as anxious for her to “Show Us You Care” as the tabloids claimed. As Hitchens reflected, “[i]t is hard to believe that a real majority of British citizens were thirsting to humiliate their Queen in this fashion, but it appeared to be so on television.”
Yet by pointing out a possible discrepancy between this monolithic portrayal of public opinion and the more complicated reality, I am not really criticizing the movie. For it is undeniable that in 1997 the media created the impression that “the British people” as a whole were angry at the royal family, and in our media-driven age, this was what mattered. Perception became the reality to which the royal family had to respond, and it makes sense for the movie to reflect this, with alternative public views remaining silent as they were silent in real life.
One favorable reviewer of The Queen, Stephanie Zacharek in Salon, cautioned against reading it as “an apologia for the monarchy,” adding that “being a humanist doesn't automatically make you a royalist.” But I think it is Zacharek who is guilty of a superficial reading. For The Queen does not merely demonstrate the humanity of Queen Elizabeth II, but also the irreplaceable beauty of what the relationship of a monarch to her subjects can be at its best. The dichotomy between the “extraordinary” woman and the “idiotic” institution alleged by Frears is ultimately shattered by his own movie, which shows that the institution is extraordinary as well, and that the Queen’s admirable qualities so exquisitely rendered by Mirren could not have the impact they do without it. Perhaps the best illustration of this is a powerfully moving scene near the end when a young girl presents her sovereign with flowers and the ensuing exchange, which really happened, reaffirms the magical type of bond which no president could ever imitate.
It is not necessary to be a diehard royalist to appreciate the irony that Frears’s magnificent cinematic achievement thoroughly refutes his public contempt for the institution to which Queen Elizabeth II has devoted her life. I can think of no better words with which to close this review than those of my younger brother William, who while not generally sharing my passionate attachment to the monarchy was nevertheless deeply affected by the scene I just described. That scene, he wrote, “made clear to me more than anything else the sanctity of monarchy and the nobility of humility. As the crowd humbles itself before the queen, she is herself humbled. The mutual humility, palpable in the air, confers on both the Queen and her subjects a grace which neither would have without the other. Let those British republicans who choose to see this movie exit the theater with a strong sense of what they have gained by viewing this film, and what they would lose should the light of that grace ever be extinguished.”