Review by: Larry Thomas
British director Stephen Frears learned his craft by working diligently in series
television for fifteen years, until he hit the art-film trifecta in the mid-1980s.
THE HIT, a gangster saga with Terence Stamp; My Beautiful Laundrette,
a gay love story that made a star of Daniel Day Lewis; and Prick Up Your Ears,
the biography of playwright Joe Orton were major hits with their audiences on
both sides of the pond. Since then, he has directed five women to Oscar nominations:
Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening and Judi Dench.
And if current wisdom prevails, he's about to add a sixth name to that list:
In The Queen, Mirren not only opens up the personae of Queen Elizabeth,
much more than tv news clips can do, but Frears also brings us inside the Royal
Family. Steeped in tradition and formality, this is a world rarely glimpsed
by outsiders. And while this is a fictional film based on fact, it has a documentary-style
feel to it.
The film begins with the election of Tony Blair as Prime Minister, which is not
particularly pleasing to The Queen. They have their political and personal differences,
and the new PM's wife is outspokenly anti-monarchy. The second act opens with
the death of Princess Diana, and follows how the Royal Family in general, and
Queen Elizabeth in particular, cope - or some would say: ignore... the tragic
events that managed to shake the Brits to the core. Diana was loved and revered,
and Elizabeth cannot grasp why. Or even what to do about these current events.
Other than Helen Mirren, the only familiar face in the cast is James Cromwell
as Prince Philip. This versatile American character actor has come a long way
from playing Stretch Cunningham on All In The Family, even scoring an Oscar
nomination as Farmer Hoggett in the delightful Babe. Welsh actor Michael
Sheen is Tony Blair, a role he played previously in a TV movie, which probably
didn't hurt his chances for casting here. He's very good as the PM... smooth,
snarky, almost too good to be true, at times. But he manages to develop a great
deal of understanding for and appreciation of Her Royal Highness.
Any scenes dealing with Princess Diana use existing news footage. There is
no exploitative recreation of the accident that caused her untimely death.
The star of the piece is obviously Helen Mirren, and she's more than
up to the challenge of carrying an entire film. From her first important film
nearly forty years ago, through the Prime Suspect series of television
programs, she is consistently one of the most interesting and compelling actresses
around. She portrays Queen Elizabeth as a complex person, not a wax statue that's
merely a figurehead. Her Elizabeth exhibits caring, doubt, fear, sadness, and
under that generally unfathomable exterior, warmth. There's one particular
scene in which Elizabeth, stranded with a disabled vehicle, encounters a 14-point
stag in the highlands of Scotland. That one scene, and a brief aftermath later,
speaks volumes without a word of dialogue.
While The Queen is not necessarily a great film, it's certainly
a very satisfying film. Mirren's performance, however, is great.