If there ever was a moment where the authority of Queen Elizabeth II was severely shaken out, where the eventuality of abolishing the monarchy stopped being taboo, it's certainly the week after Lady Di's death. A magnificent rendition of this brief but tumultuous period in British' history, Stephen Frears' "The Queen" chronicles the series of events that took place between the car crash and the public funeral in West Minster.
But more than a political film, "The Queen" is constructed like an exhilarating psychological arm-wrestling between two antagonistic forces: the freshly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II. Blair had won by a landslide and Elizabeth was incarnating the very establishment the main body of his electors stood against. It's interestingly mentioned that the Queen can't vote because she's above the government, yet the opening meeting with Blair almost belies this fact. As Cherrie Blair tells her husband, people elected him; he's legitimate while the Queen is just a symbol. Peter Morgan's Oscar-nominated screenplay strikes by a very efficient simplicity by clearly setting the two antagonisms right in the beginning.
Being the same age than Prince William, I'm old enough to remember this Sunday morning, Diana was dead
car accident, paparazzi, well, the causes were as obvious as its aftermath was shocking. I remember I saw women of my family crying and I wondered why? Mother Theresa would die a few days later and I can't remember anyone crying over her loss yet she certainly did more than Lady Di. But Lady Diana was young, beautiful, caring, and in her way, she was embodying a sort of emotional struggle and incarnating an unreachable dream. If she wasn't an innocent victim, her death made her a martyr of her own status. And one thing for sure, she had simply won the people's hearts.
And whether it's the press that guides the feelings or the opposite mattered less than two realities Blair and Elizabeth had to deal with: Britain is a media-centric society and people's emotions never lie. It's indeed impossible to doubt over the sincerity of those who wept, cried or put flowers in Buckingham Palace. Their denial was understandable, but then so was the next stage of grief: anger. Diana's brother accused journalists of having blood on their hands, and people got angry toward the Royal Family's reaction, or lack of reaction as a matter of fact: no half-mast flag, a vacation in Balmoral Palace. The shift between Her Majesty and Britain got wider, crystallizing a popular anger
while Tony Blair was the man of the situation.
Helen Mirren's performance is essential as she conveys a subtle nuance of emotionality behind her solid attachment to protocol and of the legendary British sense of composure, this capability to take grief in silence and dignity. At one point, she even confesses her admiration to Muslim rituals where people are buried within the day of the death. The irony is that it's also out of respect for Diana that she wish her funeral would remain private, while the newspapers that criticize the Royal Family are still making money out of her death and maybe use the Royal Family as a convenient scapegoat. If one thing, the script cleverly highlights the complexities of human actions while the noblest actions and not necessarily guided by the noblest motives.
The 'people's princess' that earned a leap in Blair's popularity feels less spontaneous and the character of Alastair, the cynical communication adviser incarnates this defiance toward the Queen just 'for the sake of it'. Even Cherrie Blair seems is more hostile to the Queen than Blair, and it does create an instinctive empathy toward Elizabeth. Meanwhile, the film avoids the opposite Manichaeism by showing a Tony Blair convinced that Britain needs monarchy, while on the Royal Family side, Queen Mum and Prince Edward (a grouchy James Cromwell) don't feel concerned by Diana's death.
"The Queen" is a battle of opinions, of human relationships and work as a psychological drama. When the Queen accepts to speak, a tabloid titles 'the Queen bends knee to Blair', but it's not Blair's victory that is highlighted here. Blair understands that the Queen must speak for her own interests. And Elizabeth's dilemma leads the story to a more introspective road where she would finally realize that she failed to be on the same wavelength than her people. She didn't bend knee to Tony, but to the people. The film ends two months after the tumultuous weeks when both Tony and the Queen meet again. It's friendlier and warmer, Blair enjoyed the double prestige of having won both the people's heart and preserved the prestige of the Royal Family, but Elizabeth doesn't display much gratitude and warns Blair against the volatility of people' opinions.
Indeed, if a Queen who reigned over 40 years (60 now) failed to understand her people once, it could happen to him as well. The film was released in 2006, before Tony Blair's resignation. And it's interesting to note how times have significantly changed and what turned around came around. Now, Tony Blair is mostly remembered for his disastrous alliance with George W. Bush in the infamous War Iraq -and contrarily to Elizabeth, Blair didn't make a mea culpa, he never regretted his involvement- while the Queen is more respected than ever, the marriage between Charles and Camilla is accepted, William and Kate are under the spots.
Maybe it's true that in a media-centric society, emotions can be guided, and what remain strong enough to last are the institutions. And Helen Mirren perfectly captured the unflappability of a sacred institution with still a faithful respect toward people, and for that, she truly deserved her Oscar.
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