Note: In the following joint critique, John wrote the first film review, the video, audio, extras, and parting thoughts, and Jason wrote the second film review.
The Film According to John:
Some movies are worth their weight in gold if only for the performance of a single actor or actress. Such is the case with "The Queen," director Stephen Frears' 2006 examination of the British Royal family in the aftermath of Princess Diana's tragic death in 1997. The film stars Helen Mirren as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and Ms. Mirren puts in a bravura performance, one that will leave you wondering if she hadn't co-inhabited the real Queen's body and soul. Yet the portrayal is no mere imitation; Mirren creates a living, breathing Queen Elizabeth that goes beyond the public image and into the woman's very being, a performance worthy of Ms. Mirren's receiving an Academy Award for Best Actress of the year.
Jason will discuss some of the film's bigger themes and conflicts, the struggles between the Royals and the young, new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on how to handle what the Queen and her family figured would blow over in a couple of days and what Blair saw as a situation having the makings of a national crisis. I'd rather talk about the more-personal nature of Queen Elizabeth, the Royals, and Blair as the movie reveals them. "The Queen" is a serious, if somewhat fictional, look behind-the-scenes at the Royal household, and while it is not an entirely flattering portrait, it not one without its humorous moments as well.
From the outset, we observe a note of playfulness in Frears' tone, as Her Majesty looks askance at us from the opening title. Then the story begins with the Queen watching the Blair election and regretting that as Royalty she is not entitled to vote, not entitled to be partial. Bummer; one of the disadvantages of being a monarch. As Shakespeare wrote (and the movie quotes), "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." I should say. Have you ever tried to sleep with a crown on?
Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) in his first years of office was one Great Britain's most popular Prime Ministers. He was all for modernization, but he stopped short of suggesting the elimination of the monarchy. That was an institution that as a politician Blair didn't dare touch. Yet the movie shows us how dangerously close the British people were to demanding such a change. At one point after Diana's death, polls showed that one in four subjects favored abandoning the idea of kings and queens. It seriously worried the Queen, to the point of her wondering if Blair intended to try and modernize her as well. The British have been grappling for years with the problem of their monarchs being mere figureheads, but how do you dump so cherished an institution?
Anyway, the Monarch's job is "to advise, guide, and warn the government of the day," as well as to accept the newly elected Prime Minister to his post, so that's where our movie really begins. Her Majesty appears early on to be rather stuffy, a product of her upbringing; she was taught to be Queen and serve her people with a quiet dignity. Mirren portrays her as so formal at first that it's amusing. Poor Tony Blair, who clearly does not agree with the rigorous protocol demanded of a thousand years of court custom, must learn to bow properly in the Queen's "presence," never to turn his back on her when exiting a room, and other pleasantries he's not quite up to. Blair seems practically petrified at his first face-to-face meeting with her. She, on the other hand, is used to Prime Ministers coming and going. Blair, she informs him, is her tenth Prime Minister, starting with Winston Churchill. How does that make him feel? Nor does she approve of Blair's insistence that his staff and other government officials be on a first-name basis with one another. No, the Queen would never call him "Tony," and, yes, the Queen carries her handbag with her everywhere she goes.
In Mirren's hands, the Queen is both courtly and dignified, as her public image would indicate, and at the same time human and vulnerable, as her personal life must inevitably be. She wants very much for her subjects to like her, and it causes her great stress when she learns, perhaps for the first time in her life, that maybe, just maybe, they could do without her, especially when she appears unintentionally to behave in a callous manner toward the death of the Princess.
Conversely, James Cromwell portrays her husband, Prince Philip, as a thorough prig, a royal pain in the behind. I have no idea if the Prince is actually as heartless as the filmmakers depict him here, I would hope not, but let us say it is not a flattering portrait. Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) and the Queen Mother (Silvia Syms) come off far more sympathetically. Which brings up another point: Frears tells us the movie is not supposed to represent reality in any literal sense; for instance, much of the dialogue is made up. It is a story, after all, but a very true-to-life one and, by all accounts, a fairly accurate one.
The tremendous public outpouring of grief after Diana's death apparently took everyone by surprise, which did not sit well with the Queen or the Royal family, whom the public seemed to consider more as quaint antiques, leftovers of a bygone era, than as the "People's Princess" had been. The film suggests that there was more than a little envy going on here than we would have suspected.
But most important about the film is its backstage depiction of Her Majesty, the woman we don't see on TV or in the newsreels: The Queen driving a Land Rover over her country estate, for example; or the Queen stuck in a river by herself and having to call on a cell phone for help; or the Queen asking her "mummy" for advice; or the Queen questioning her own seemingly old-fashioned values. In providing this inside glimpse at a very public icon, the film is both critical of her and the Royal Family as well as respectful and almost reverential.
Interestingly, Ms. Mirren in new hair, costume, and makeup looks quite like the Queen. It made me wonder I watched her if the film's makeup artists and costumers went to work on the Queen, could they make Her Majesty look like Mirren? Sorry, an idle thought.
But it is not just the Queen who gets the inside look. Who would have thought that Prime Minister Blair did his own dinner dishes? Yeah, well, maybe he doesn't, but the film would have believe he is just a common guy, despite his own rather formal upbringing and education. And the film ends prophetically, the Queen warning Blair that what almost happened to her (the people rebelling against her) could come quite suddenly to him, too. And, as we know, Mr. Blair's popularity plummeted as the British public's opposition to the Iraq war increased.
"The Queen" is a relatively short film taking place in a relatively short time span, yet it presents a reasonably comprehensive picture of the monarch, her family, her government, and her people. It is an extraordinary achievement.
The Film According to Jason:
"The Queen," director Stephen Frears' Oscar-nominated film, details the days after Princess Diana's death as billed, but it does something else: It showcases the perpetual tug-of-war between the office of the Prime Minister and the largely figurehead position of the monarchy.
The titular character, Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), is said to be in a state of shock after Diana's death. More shocking, though, to her son, the prime minister and the British people is the callous disregard toward the death. She battles different figures within her country at every turn to try and keep Diana from looming over the royal family any longer. She initially forbids Prince Charles from taking the royal plane to retrieve the body; she and Prince Philip adamantly refuse to fly a flag at half-mast at the palaces; and for the life of her, Elizabeth can't understand why the British people mourn Diana as they do.
In her eyes, the people have always been strong, dating back to World War II. The royal family, with the exception of Charles, believes the grieving process will take roughly two days, at which point the people will go back to their lives. After nearly a week of mourning and mounting pressure from all sides, a stag on the estate grounds changes her mind.
Initially, I couldn't understand the praise being heaped upon this film. Sure, Helen Mirren is as close to Hollywood royalty as you can get, but the story of Elizabeth versus Tony Blair? It sounded, honestly, boring. But something happened within the very first scene of "The Queen." I became entranced with the story on the screen. The way Mirren doesn't allow a hint of emotion to escape from any pore. She is the very definition of calm and collected, especially in the face of great adversity. Blair, initially, as well as the British people, see this emotionless monarch as being unfeeling and out of touch. That's not the case and it's terribly cruel to think Elizabeth is an emotionless being, based on this story.
According to the research done by screenwriter Peter Morgan, the queen deeply believed in what she was doing after Diana's death: She wanted a period of solitary, dignified grieving followed by a return to normal. In her eyes, that was what the British people wanted and, in turn, what she expected from them. So it's a revelation to her about the outpouring of grief. And in her transformation lies the very heart of the film. Not in the fact that Diana died nor in the fact that a human being was lost, but in the idea that this strong woman's convictions were changed.
As a counterpoint, Blair charts the exact opposite course. He starts by trying to change the queen's mind and, as he slowly begins to understand her, he becomes her biggest fan within the government. Notice the fire with which he defends her near the end. That would have been unimaginable during their first meeting, yet they've both come partway to meet each other in the middle. It's as much as can be expected, I believe, especially considering the thinly disguised venom spewed in Diana's direction by members of the royal family. (Philip is arguably the worst, slandering the people who would be attending Diana's funeral: homosexuals and pop stars.)
Prince Charles, Diana's ex-husband, comes off in the film as being a man who still loves this woman, despite both of their new relationships. He fights his mother, the queen, as much as he can to secure the proper burial rights for her. There's also a sadness in his eyes, as if he realizes he hasn't only lost this special woman, but the world has lost a champion.
If there is one part of the Diana tragedy the movie does overlook, it's the things that she did. Seen only in brief flashes of newsreel footage, we see Diana engaged in the charity work she was known for; it is all but lost on the royal family. They don't understand why she meant so much to so many people from all walks of life. They don't understand why Blair called her the People's Princess. They simply don't understand. The audience, drawing on their knowledge of the princess, can fill in the blanks, though they shouldn't have to. There is no reason why the script can't lay out the necessary information.
That is a minor nitpick, to be sure, in a film filled with exquisite production design and remarkable performances. "The Queen" doesn't carry the political punch of "Catch a Fire" nor does it make the audience roll with laughter like "Little Miss Sunshine." What it does, though, is give us the chance to see a woman shrouded in secrecy at a vulnerable time. The first glimpse the public had of the queen after Diana's death was on national (and international) television. Some called her stiff and unfeeling; it would be impossible to do so after learning the reasons why she maintained her veil of seriousness.
One piece of the Diana story that is missing from the film, which I expected to come into play somewhere, was Elton John's "Candle in the Wind." He is featured, along with other celebrities, at the funeral in news clips. I can't imagine why, outside of royalties, his tribute song to the princess was left out. Even a few bars would have sufficed.
"The Queen," on the scale of 1 to 10, rates an 8. This is a family-friendly film with the exception of one scene, which may be too graphic for some age groups. However, they should be fast asleep by the time it comes on screen. Definitely and wholeheartedly recommended.
The Buena Vista video engineers transferred the movie's original 1.85:1 ratio image to disc at a size that now fills out a 1.78:1 widescreen television, meaning they trimmed a tad bit of information from the sides. For the most part, the picture looks excellent, about on a par with the best standard-resolution transfers around. Clarity and detailing are good, with an image that is bright without being glaring. Colors are natural and stand out vividly. Perhaps things get a bit murky in darker scenes and darker areas of the screen, but it's not bad. The filmmakers have intermixed some actual footage with the staged shots, and the difference is quite apparent.
There is not much one can say about the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. It might just as well have been two-channel stereo or even monaural, given that most of the film's soundtrack is dialogue. There is some background music that opens up nicely across the front speakers, and there is a touch of ambience enhancement in the surrounds. Otherwise, the sonics are quite realistic, with a nice tonal balance and a clean midrange response.
There are three major bonus items, the first two being audio commentaries. The commentary by director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan explains a good deal about the filmmaking itself, the shots, the composition, the locales, etc. The commentary by British historian and Royal expert Robert Lacey, author of "Majesty," provides us with tidbits of information on the Royal family, Royal etiquette, and the like. The third bonus is the twenty-minute featurette, "The Making of The Queen," which contains comments from the director, some of the other filmmakers, and the stars. The grizzled Frears, by the way, looks like he's competing with Peter Jackson in the sartorial department.
Things wrap up with sixteen scene selections and a chapter insert, Sneak Peeks at seven other Buena Vista titles, a handsomely embossed slipcover for the DVD case, English and Spanish spoken languages, Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Unlike so many films that portray real-life persons and try to cover either an entire lifetime or a span of years, "The Queen" confines itself to the weeks prior to and just after Princess Diana's death. By concentrating on a single event in the life of the Royals and Prime Minister Blair, the film is better able to provide a focused and integrated look into these people's lives. More important, though, is that Helen Mirren's performance as Elizabeth II is so public yet so intimate, it may be more revealing than any full-length biography could ever have been.