I can’t imagine the Brits are too crazy for inherently American films like Saving Private Ryan, Yankee Doodle Dandy
, or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
. Something about being an American just makes those movies better; similarly, I imagine something about being a Brit probably makes The Queen
National boundaries sometimes impede audiences from grasping the full intent of a film. Bollywood cinema from India is rarely imported, as Hollywood distributors don’t see a market for it in the states; many Americans just don't "get" dance numbers. Cinephiles wanting to see foreign films often have to seek them out at art houses or on Criterion Collection DVDs; every once in a while, there’s a film like Pan’s Labyrinth
that draws audiences regardless of the film’s language.
isn’t a foreign film, in the sense that it’s in the Queen’s English, but the story is foreign in that it’s almost jealously Brit-specific. The emotions dealt with are based on the experiences of the British people after Princess Diana’s tragic death, specifically their reaction to Queen Elizabeth II's cold response to the tragedy. Portrayed by the incomparable actress Helen Mirren, the Queen demands Diana’s funeral be private, whereas the newly appointed Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) believes, because of Diana’s public life, that her funeral should be a public affair.
Elizabeth II and the monarchical Royal Family, entrenched in tradition, refuse to raise a flag at half mast in respect of the honored dead; they refuse to make any public speeches; they refuse to address the issue at all. A tidy, quiet, dignified death—that’s what they hope for Diana. That’s what defines being British in their minds. Considering Diana and Charles’s divorce, Elizabeth II and her family hold a deep grudge against the fashionable and philanthropic Princess, whose private life was entirely too publicized too deem “dignified.” The British people, meanwhile, distraught over their loss, cry in the streets and lay hundreds of bouquets outside of Buckingham Palace.
Director Stephen Frears incorporates footage from actual interviews with British citizens, stitches in segments of Diana’s funeral, and includes original news reports on the events covered in the film. Confirming the anti-Royal Family reaction at the time, the various pieces of footage provide the few moments without scathing satire or tempered emotion. Much of the film is quite funny in the driest possible British humor and bears heavy internal emotions. James Cromwell as Prince Phillip offers some of the most absurdly cold, proper humor in the picture, delivering a line like “Elton John wishes to sing at the funeral. Should be a first for Westminster Abbey,” so it becomes laugh-out-loud funny.
For every quip about Diana, there are ten fold against Queen Elizabeth II, a figure thought to be heartless and outdated in the film’s context. Helen Mirren has starred in some of the best films of the last few years, namely Godsford Park
and The Pledge
; this is one of her best performances. Reserved yet teeming with sentiment, ready to blow emotionally but too controlled to do so, Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth II is a tragic, stubborn, and ultimately brave woman, who, like Diana, was simply a victim of the press.
The Brits have given cinema a volley of brilliant actors over the years: Lawrence Olivier, Alec Guiness, Michael Redgrave, Kenneth Branagh, Ian McKellen, Kate Winslet, Michael Caine, Jude Law, Judi Dench, and Christian Bale among many others… I don’t know what they put in the water over there, but it is working. If only the U.S. could generate performers with such a range of talent. Julia Roberts has one role: Julia Roberts. Brit actors have a reputation for disappearing into their characters.
Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair surprised me. An actor known primarily for bit roles in Underworld
, Kingdom of Heaven
, and Blood Diamond
, Sheen gives a performance for which I’m shocked isn’t more discussed on this year’s awards circuit. He puts the once sympathetic face back onto Blair and garners a more empathetic ethos than Mirren’s, at least for the American audience member.
This is a film about acting, one that will be remembered for Mirren’s brilliant performance, not for the quieted humor or often picturesque beauty throughout (the scenes with the stag are breathtaking). Like last year’s Capote
(about which no one now discusses the film, just the performance), The Queen
will be remembered as Helen Mirren’s triumph. Rightly so, I imagine. Brit-specificities aside, Mirren creates a noble portrait of the Queen, making this film a gem that should be seen, if for nothing else its great performances.