Directed by: Stephen Frears
Starring: Helen Mirren, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam, Michael Sheen, Helen McCrory
Making a biopic is a tricky business. For one, you deal with a real-life personality and your job is to highlight the so-called ‘good’ qualities of the character while discreetly glossing over the so-called ‘bad’ qualities. While doing so, most of the biopics turn into a black and white affair, a story of extraordinary achievements of an ordinary person.
It becomes trickier when you deal with a personality very much alive and kicking and attempt to tell a story, which the personality in question would rather wipe it out from the public memory, is she could.
It is this aspect of filmmaking that makes The Queen stand out. You have to give it to director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan for dramatising the story which is very much part of the public memory and which involves the royal family of Great Britain. While doing so, both Morgan and Frears refuse to take a stand either to support or oppose what was happening. This is a rare achievement and one of the reasons what makes The Queen one of the outstanding movies released last year.
The year was 1997. Tony Blair became the youngest Prime Minister of Britain and he promises to ‘modernise’ the conservative outlook of the country. Here begins the first clash between monarchy and democracy. Whatever he may do, Blair cannot undermine the royal family.
Then occurs the tragic death of Princess Diana. As her body is flown from Paris to London, public expects a royal burial. Blair rides on the public support and terms Diana a people’s princess. But Queen Elizabeth would hear nothing about it. According to her, since Diana was no longer a member of the royal family (since her divorce) she cannot be given a royal burial. As public throng to Birmingham Palace to pay tribute to the late princess, the royal family goes for a holiday in Scotland.
Here ensues the royal drama between the monarch and the democratic, modern prime minister. The queen stands by her decision while Blair would go to any extend to appease the public.
The story is real. It happened exactly the same way in the week following Lady Diana’s death. But what we knew was what the newspaper would tell us. The film is the behind-the-scenes events, how the royal family reacted at Diana’s death.
Most of us haven’t seen the queen in her private life, and Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth takes us to a royal trip. Her body language, her voice modulations, her emotional outbursts all make us believe what Queen Elizabeth must have gone through those volatile days. Mirren adds such exuberance to her role that you cannot imagine any one else in that role. Last year Mirren took home all the major acting awards for the role, and she deserves every bit of it. She gives the character a rare dignity which otherwise could have been a crude caricature (like the character of Prince Charles, which ends up being a caricature.)
Both Michael Sheen and Helen McCrory look uncannily like Tony and Cherie Blair respectively and lends to the authenticity of the drama.
However, the highlight is Stephen Frears fearless directorial skills. He does not even attempt to positivise the actions of his characters and let the audience decide. And hence, through the film begins as a criticism to the royal family you end up supporting Queen Elizabeth for what she is.
And for that the credit must go to Helen Mirren. She is the queen personified.