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January 23, 2007 > The Queen-A Movie Review

The Queen-A Movie Review

By Steve Warga

This quasi-documentary about tensions on high after Princess Diana's untimely death in Paris, is as thoroughly British as afternoon tea and crumpets with orange marmalade. With the redoubtable Helen Mirren in the lead as Queen Elizabeth II; writer Robin Morgan and director Stephen Frears, both England natives, have teamed to produce a solid reward for Anglophiles everywhere.

The film's only substantial flaw is the somewhat leisurely stroll it takes to reach the real dramatic tension pitting the Queen against a significant percentage of her subjects who are grieving over the death of the "Peoples' Princess." The Queen chooses to remain aloof, partly out of respect for 10 centuries of tradition and partly due to considerable disdain for the woman who flaunted those same traditions of privacy before divorcing Charles, Elizabeth's eldest child and crown prince of England. The plot in this 97-minute production consumes about half the runtime before coming to a full boil.

Until then, we're treated to lots of faux-grainy news footage greeted with large doses of British stiff upper lips and hushed dialogue amidst the luxurious appointments and unimaginably privileged lifestyle reserved by a country for its royalty.

Were it not for a line from William Shakespeare's Richard II opening the film, viewers might be forgiven for thinking this movie is more about Diana's death and how populist Prime Minister Tony Blair confronts his first crisis, one that consumes him even before his inauguration. Until the real drama of a queen's dilemma takes over the screen, it is Blair's story, like it or not.

In the movie, his respectful but persistent pressure on the queen to respond publicly to the media's increasingly strident demands ultimately earns him an accolade as "the man who saved the crown." Whether or not this is an accurate portrayal of those days in 1997, remains a question whose answer is known by only a very few people. But it's doubtful any sort of rebellion would have been triggered had the queen ignored the advice.

What finally becomes clear to viewers, however, is Elizabeth's deeply personal struggle, so wonderfully summarized centuries earlier by the Bard of Avon: "Uneasy rests the head that wears a crown." According to the script, the queen's reticence in the days following Diana's death led to the first serious bout of unpopularity she had encountered in over four decades of reign as titular Head of State. (Morgan glosses over the entirely ceremonial nature of England's monarch. English kings and queens hold no government powers beyond those of advising Parliament and making appointments to a few ceremonial positions.)

The surging groundswell of unrest is cleverly documented by repeated shots of the gates at Buckingham where a small mountain of flowers and other tributes begins growing immediately after the princess's death is announced in the wee hours of August 31, 1997. By the time Elizabeth and her immediate family visit this spontaneous memorial, the bouquets seem to tower over them. And that mountain is attended by thousands and thousands of mourners lining the streets for miles in all directions.

Sad to say, but Hollywood influences have been slowly eroding the traditional quality of British actors for a good long while now. However, Casting Director Leonora Davis was not deterred from gathering together some truly talented English character actors. Roger Allam as the queen's private secretary was outstandingly deferential and reserved as one would expect of a man in his position. Michael Sheen as Tony Blair and Alex Jennings as Prince Charles manage to leverage their look-alike casting into solid screen presences.

Helen McCrory as Blair's anti-monarchist wife, Cherie, seemed a little over the top, but it is possible the real Cherie Blair is shallow and petulant as portrayed. There have been rumblings and even accusations of power abuse in the years since '97. Credit McCrory for her willingness to reach for the right acting notes.

The same cannot be said for American James Cromwell who didn't even attempt an accent despite his role as the Queen's husband, Prince Phillip Height and a patrician visage are Cromwell's only talents. His acting almost literally clanked in the presence of a luminary like Mirren. Her resemblance to the real Elizabeth II is nothing more than a happy coincidence. Mirren is one of the best actors alive today. She richly deserved her Golden Globe award and looks to be a very strong contender for the Best Actress Oscar in March.

Portraying British reserve in a full-fledged drama cannot be an easy task for a writer. So perhaps Morgan should be forgiven for inserting a genuinely trite dose of symbolism in the form of an elusive trophy stag ("deer" as we call them in the states). Without knowing the actual facts, one can only surmise that this majestically-antlered creature somehow chose that particular summer to roam the vast grounds of the royal "cottage," Balmoral, located in the Scottish moors. Long days stalking this stag are Prince Phillip's prescription for treating the grief of Diana's two young sons, William and Andrew.

This portion of the script isn't as far-fetched, though, as when Elizabeth's Land Rover breaks down and leaves her stranded for a short while in a remote river crossing, Mr. Magnificent the Stag just happens to drop by for a visit, mere feet away from Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II. And he times his big moment to witness her one surrender to a certain grief of her own. After a harsh and solitary sob with her back to the camera-one that would have spooked the wily buck, Mirren turns to see the deer watching her intently. Her awe at his stature chases the last bit of tears and we never see any further public displays of inner pain.

It's just too pat to be believed. But wait, there's more! Viewers are subjected to even more tripe when, late in the film, Elizabeth drives to a neighboring estate to examine the gutted, beheaded carcass of this same animal after "an investment banker from London" wounds it in a controlled hunt. We're informed that some of the estate's best lads (ghillies, as they're known) spent hours tracking the wounded stag before its delayed mercy killing. Why is this scene in the movie? Symbolism for what Elizabeth will soon face back in London, presumably. Whatever the thinking behind this stag portrayal, it's all way too cute for serious drama.

It is possible that script writer Morgan (co-author of The Last King of Scotland, featuring this year's Golden Globe Best Actor, Forest Whitaker) did the whole stag routine just to afford the film's costumers a chance to show-off Mirren's collection of stunningly-colored Hermes silk scarves. She sports several in this film and they are all a feast for the eyes with their rich, bright patterns. Were it not for her forays afield in the stag scenes, we might never have the chance to appreciate these fine millinery confections.

One other minor annoyance must be laid at the feet of Director Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, and The Grifters; among many credits). Those grainy-effect newsreels are a bit much. It's as if high-quality video cameras didn't exist way back in 1997. Well, that was last century, wasn't it?

Don't let these defects deter you, though. This is a very well-done project, top-to-bottom, and one highly recommended for those movie goers still thirsting for superior acting and drama. This story will stir your emotions and stimulate your thinking, a perfect formula for fine drama.

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