A more sober tone would have made Stephen Frears’ filmization of Peter Morgan’s The Queen screenplay less appealing to a mass audience. However, it would also have made the film itself – and the people and events portrayed in it – more true to life.
Frears and/or Morgan and/or the film’s producers and executive producers (among them Scott Rudin) simply couldn’t resist “humanizing” Queen Elizabeth II and British prime minister Tony Blair, as they both fight a semi-public battle following the sudden and violent death of Princess Diana in 1997. Usually, when we’re discussing mainstream movies such as The Queen, “humanizing” means mushying things up.
The Queen may not have been overly fond of her daughter-in-law, but she likes deer as the filmmakers, with the overbearing assistance of Alexandre Desplat’s score, let us know. She may seem like a cold fish, but her heart just melts away when a little commoner girl unexpectedly hands her a flower. She doesn’t invite the girl to dinner, of course, but she doesn’t have to. The fact that she looks visibly moved proves to us that The Queen is human.
Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair fares no better in the mushiness department, coming across as a much more likable (and better-looking) figure than the actual – deceitful and ruthlessly ambitious – British prime minister. Blair’s little hissy fit near the end, when he tells a cynical assistant about How Difficult Life Is for a Poor Little Multibillionaire Queen, is The Queen‘s very nadir.
But despite those glaring flaws, The Queen has much to recommend it. Though way too likable for the character’s own good, Sheen is fully believable as a prime minister; certainly more so than Pierce Brosnan in The Ghost Writer, Hugh Grant in Love, Actually, George Arliss in Disraeli, or John Gielgud in The Prime Minister (also Disraeli).
Veteran Sylvia Syms is excellent as the Queen Mother, and so is Helen McCrory as a highly unsympathetic Cherie Blair. Much like Olivia Williams’ character in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, in The Queen the prime minister’s wife takes the brunt of the blame for his missteps.
Helen Mirren, for her part, delivers one of those career-making performances the likes of which happen only rarely every decade or so. Never mind the fact that Mirren had been a film actress, and a stage and television star since the 1960s.
Particularly impressive is her televised speech near the end of the film: the actual Elizabeth II came across as someone reading a laundry list (the speech can be found online); Mirren’s Queen looked and sounded like someone pained by the events – but without any hint of sentimentality or asking for the audience’s sympathy. In fact, Mirren’s handling of the character added a welcome ambiguity to that speech: was The Queen upset because of Princess Diana’s tragic death and her own family’s suffering, or because she had to reluctantly take part in that ugly media circus so as to play Royal Mommy to a distraught British public?
If only Morgan’s generally incisive screenplay had been as poignantly honest and complex throughout. But then again, had the filmmakers trusted their audience’s intelligence a little more The Queen would quite possibly have become neither a worldwide hit nor a multiple-Oscar nominee.
THE QUEEN (2006). Director: Stephen Frears. Cast: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings, Sylvia Syms, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam, Julian Firth. Screenplay: Peter Morgan.