Welcome, moviegasm fanatics, to the first of five reviews this week, each day my take on one of the year’s Best Picture nominees. For reasons I haven’t really thought about, I’m going to post them in order of their likelihood to take home the coveted statuette, which means we begin with Stephen Frears’ The Queen.Let me state right out that I like Stephen Frears, but I don’t love him. High Fidelity and Dirty Pretty Things are both pretty good, and of course, Dangerous Liasons is terrific. And they’re all very different from one another, which also appeals to me in a director. But Mary Reilly was a great idea that was just poorly executed, so I went into The Queen a bit skeptical, especially given the story.
In case you haven’t heard, it revolves around the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair, in particular regarding the Royal Family’s reaction to the death of Princess Diana. Now I confess to being one of those people who put very, very little thought into Diana either before or after her death, and still remain firmly in the camp that it is a travesty that she took so much attention away from Mother Theresa (if you’ve ever seen Ann and Jeanette Petrie’s documentary, you understand why). But after seeing this film (which is partly fictionalized), I can at least appreciate the connection many people felt with her.
But I think all of that is worth mentioning because Diana was, apparently, a very polarising figure, and your opinion of her and the way she was treated by Elizabeth and family may well effect your opinion of the film. I, for one, was very pleasantly surprised to find it not only well-acted (as one would expect), but also very entertaining. Helen Mirren deserves every bit of praise and every award she’s getting for her performance. It is remarkably restrained, layered, dignified in the ways you would expect but also completely human and very engaging. If she were one bit less interesting, the whole movie would fall apart.
Equally good, if somewhat less recognized, is Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. The guy was apparently very well received playing Blair in an ’03 BBC telepic called The Deal, and he must have been good because his previous credits include both Underworld movies, Timeline, and The Four Feathers; nothing that indicated he had this kind of work in him. You really get the sense that Blair was almost a John Kennedy to his people: young, engaging, full of enthusiasm for change. He represents the same cultural shift that almost makes the Royal Family vestigial in the course of the film, and the subtle shift in his attitude over the film as he begins to realize this is wonderful to watch.
The supporting cast is also very good, especially James Cromwell, who has quietly become one of the most reliable character actors working, as Prince Philip, Alex Jennings as a meek Prince Charles, and Roger Allam as Robin Janvrin, one of the Queen’s advisors. But after Mirren, the real star here is Frears. He balances the action very well between the Queen’s sheltered life on her estates, Blair’s efforts in the real world, and creating a general sense of the attitudes of the people in Britain, using actual news footage for the latter.
He’s faced with an interesting challenge. In many ways, the movie makes the media out to be the bad guy in regards to both Diana’s death and what follows, because of their intrusions on the lives of the Royal Family. But what could be more intrusive than a film seeking to guess what went on behind closed doors after her death?
His answer is to keep his actors at a distance from the camera, to give them their privacy. In one remarkably restrained scene, Prince Charles goes to view Diana’s body, but when he steps inside the room and closes the frosted-glass door behind him, we stay outside and watch what happens through the glass. There is another beautifully filmed sequence in which the Queen is stranded on her estate when her jeep brakes down (yes, she drives herself sometimes), and surrounded by such beauty, expresses more emotion than we see from her at any other time in the film. But the camera stays behind her, giving her privacy, and it’s only when she turns to look at a deer that’s appeared on the hill that we see a few tears have tumbled down her cheeks. There isn’t an American filmmmaker working that wouldn’t have gone in for a close-up there, or possibly had her have a total breakdown and smash the windows on the jeep. But Frears is too respectful of his subjects to indulge in that kind of emotional sentimentality, and the film is better for it.
What The Queen is really about, what makes it ultimately substantial, is its dramatization of a figurative changing of the guard, the ushering in of a new era. Such times of cultural shift are always most difficult for the old guard, but what Blair tells the Queen, and Frears is telling us, is that even an institution as timeless as the Crown is forced to change with the times in order to survive. And that is what Elizabeth does, and it makes her an extraordinary central character to hang a film on. She survives, with dignity, class, and respect.
So with all of that said, why, I hear you asking from your padded rooms, is it finishing last in my utterly un-scientific poll of which films are likely to win Best Picture? Well, for one, Clint Eastwood didn’t direct it. But it is also, and I don’t mean this negatively, a distinctly British film. The crux of the drama hinges on a newspaper poll claiming one in four supported abolishing the monarchy. In Britain, I imagine that is a revolutionary idea. But Americans would barely give it the attention we gave to Scott Peterson. And that model of English restraint- like, say, The Remains of the Day- tends to garner respect from the Academy more than outright enthusiasm. Merchant/Ivory always gets to come to the awards, but they never get the big one. They like their emotions raw and hysterical (see Terms of Endearment if you don’t believe me), which is ironic because if Elizabeth had had that breakdown in the middle of the estate, it might have helped the Oscar odds… but not the film. So kudos to everyone involved (including screenwriter Peter Morgan) for making it the way it needed to be made, and not pandering to what critics’ groups like. But for that very same reason, The Queen doesn’t have a chance of winning.