Dramatising the summer of 1997 from the points of view of Queen Elizabeth II and new prime minister Tony Blair, Stephen Frears’ balanced character study offers Helen Mirren the first feature film lead role of her glittering career, and one on which the rest of the film succeeds or fails. She responds with a tour de force that has already seen her carry off the Best Actress gong from the Venice Film Festival and generate early Oscar buzz.
The Queen tells of tumultuous events leading up to and beyond the death of Diana, including Blair’s sweep to power, the fateful crash in a tunnel in Paris and the monarch’s bewilderment at the reaction of her subjects, and Blair’s managing of the crisis. The death of Diana, the world’s most famous woman, seemed entirely surreal at the time and, 10 years later, the Daily Express still picks over the details on a near-daily basis. The British public, who’d rejoiced en masse at Blair’s election win just weeks earlier, now grieved en masse for a woman few had ever met.
Queen Elizabeth, preferring to grieve in private and by so doing protect her grandsons William and Harry, retreated behind the walls of Balmoral Castle with her family. Unable to comprehend the public response to the tragedy, the monarch suddenly finds herself out of kilter with her subjects, and a sense of anger soon replaces the public mood of grief. For Blair, the popular new PM, the people’s need for reassurance and support from their leaders is palpable. As the unprecedented outpouring of emotion grows ever stronger, Blair must find a way to reconnect the Queen with the British public, despite the republican sentiments of many of those around him.
Michael Sheen has played Blair before – and for the same director, in The Deal, which depicted Blair’s early pact with Gordon Brown over the Labour Party leadership. By an accident of timing, Peter Morgan’s script features a lovely juxtaposition of the monarch and her prime minister’s contrasting fortunes in their 1997 present and the inevitable future – in one prescient scene, the Queen reminds the prime minister that his popularity will not last.
Frears cleverly emphasises the different worlds of monarchy and government by giving scenes in the royals’ world a larger lens and swooping, smooth cinematography, in contrast to a near-handheld approach to filming the prime minister and his ruminations with his assorted advisers and colleagues. In amongst his own material Frears also includes archive TV news footage.
The supporting cast includes James Cromwell as an irascible Prince Philip, Sylvia Sims as the Queen Mother, a kindly confidant of the monarch, and Helen McCrory as the self-righteously republican Cherie Blair. All are solid.
By the end the Queen has learnt her lesson but avoided losing face, while Blair seems to have learned some lessons of his own. We’ve learned something too. It was already abundantly clear that Helen Mirren is a superb character actress, but here she is in a lead role, carrying a film. We’ve emphatically learned that she’s well able to do it.