Embracing the Melodrama Part II #106: The Queen (dir by Stephen Frears)


The_Queen_movieIt recently occurred to me that, if you were so inclined, you could reconstruct the entire history of the British royal family by watching movies that have been nominated for best picture.

You would start, of course, by watching Becket.  Then you’d move on to The Lion In Winter.  After The Lion in Winter, you’ll enjoy a double feature of Ivanhoe and The Adventures of Robin Hood.  After that, it’s time to watch Henry V.   When it comes to Henry VIII, you’ve actually got three films to choose from: The Private Life of Henry VIII, A Man For All Seasons, or Anne of The Thousand Days.  I suggest that you go with the Private Life of Henry VIII and then follow it up with a double feature of Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love.  After that, you’ll jump forward in time a bit.  You’ll watch The Madness of King George and Mrs. Brown because, even though neither was nominated for best picture, they both feature Oscar-nominated royal performances.  Finally, you’ll watch Chariots of Fire and The King’s Speech.  And, after all of that, you’ll end things by watching the 2006 Best Picture nominee The Queen.

And what a way to end!  The Queen is perhaps the best of the many Oscar-nominated films to be made about British royalty.  While the Queen is rightly known for being the film that finally won the great Helen Mirren an Oscar, it’s also a witty and frequently poignant look at how a group of entrenched people are forced to adapt to a changing world.  It’s a film that works not just because Helen Mirren gives a good performance in the role of Queen Elizabeth II but also because she humanizes Elizabeth, turning her into a character to whom viewers can relate.

The film opens with the death of Princess Diana in Paris.  As the world mourns, the British royal family struggles with how to deal with the tragedy.  Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) worries about the well-being of his sons.  Prince Philip (James Cromwell) is rather haughtily unconcerned with how the general public feels about Diana or the rest of the royal family.  The Queen Mother (Syliva Syms) continues to insist that the Royal Family is just as important as it has always been.  Only Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) seems to truly understand that the Royal Family cannot continue to cut itself off from the rest of the world.  Even though Elizabeth understands that the world outside of Buckingham Palace has changed, she’s still unsure about what her place in this new world will be.

Of course, not only does Elizabeth have to adjust with the changing values of the British public but she also has to deal with a new prime minister.  Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) has been swept into office, pledging that he’s going to “modernize” British society.  While the politically savvy Blair is determined to treat Elizabeth with respect, some of his closest advisers do little to disguise the contempt with which they view the royal family.  This include Tony’s own wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory).

And so, while self-styled reformer Blair finds himself in the strange position of defending tradition, Elizabeth tries to figure whether those traditions still matter in changing times.

The Queen is a film that demands an intelligent audience, one that is capable of enjoying a film based solely on the basis of good acting and intelligent dialogue.  The Queen‘s triumph is that it humanizes an iconic figure and reminds us that even the biggest events are both historical and personal.  I have no idea whether the real Elizabeth is anything like the character played by Helen Mirren but I certainly hope she is.