© 2006 Ray Wong
Aptly and succinctly entitled The Queen, this film chronicles a few months in 1997, from the day Tony Blair took power as the Prime Minister and promised a new England, and through Princess Diana's death. In the process, we get an intimate look of what it's like to be one of the world's most revered monarchs.
When Tony Blair (Sheen) wins the election by a landslide, Queen Elizabeth II (Mirren) offers her congratulations with skepticism. She advises Blair: "I've had nine prime ministers, and Winston Churchhill was the first." It's a clear show of supremacy -- government comes and goes, but the royalty is here to stay.
On August 30, 1997, something changes. With a strange twist of events that shocks the world, Princess Diana perishes in a car accident in Paris. It's no secret that the Queen and her former daughter-in-law didn't get along, but the Queen wants to protect her two beloved grandsons, Princes William and Harry, from the harsh reality and the scrutiny of the public. She believes that it's a private matter and goes into seclusion with her family. Her lack of public statement or emotions sends the country already in shock into a frenzy of finger-pointing.
At first Tony Blair seizes upon this moment to strengthen his political position as well as popularity by appealing to the public. Prince Charles (Jennings) sides with him for exactly the same purpose, trying to distance himself from his mother. But they all underestimate Diana's influence and popularity, and when the country turns to nasty outcries and accusations, Blair realizes the Queen must do something to save both the monarchy as well the country from permanent damages.
Helen Mirren (Shadowboxer) is a miracle. Her transformation as the Queen is uncanny both physically and emotionally. Like Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles, she immerses herself entirely into the character and becomes the Queen herself. You have no idea that you are watching an actor playing one of the most recognizable living royalties in the world. On top of it, she manages to bring life and humanity to the Queen. Mirren deserves all the awards she could get her hands on.
As Tony Blair, Michael Sheen (Underworld: Evolution) holds his own and does a marvelous job. His physical resemblance to the Prime Minister is an asset, but it's his voice and attitude that make us believe. He also gives us a glimpse of the softer side that we don't normally see in the real Blair.
The supporting cast delivers stellar performances, including James Cromwell (Dante's Inferno) as the Queen's boorish but loving husband, Prince Philip. Sylvia Syms (What a Girl Wants) does her part as the Queen Mother well. Alex Jennings (Babel) manages to give some warmth to the generally helpless and charisma-free Prince Charles. Helen McCrory (Casanova) is brash as Blair's unsympathetic wife, and Roger Allam (A Cock and Bull Story) is charming as the Queen's personal assistant, Robin.
Written by Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland), the screenplay is actually rather straightforward without frills. It has a TV miniseries feel to it. If not for the incredible performances from Mirren and company, the script would have fallen flat. However, the story does give us an intimate look into the Queen's life not as a royalty, but as a real human being. It shows us when she's not wearing a crown, she's just like our own mothers, in many different ways. She wears frumpy clothes and drives her own car (and she used to be a mechanic). She has her own problems and issues. She holds dear to her family but at the same time, doesn't know exactly how to reach out to them.
At times, it's easy to demonize the royal family and agree with Tony Blair when he says, "Will someone save these people from themselves?" But as the story continues to unfold, we come to really care about them and realize they make mistakes and have flaws just like you and me -- they are just human, despite all the power and jewels in the crowns.
Director Frears (Mrs. Henderson Presents) brings us back to those fateful months almost a decade ago with deft cinematography and a nice pace. He also allows the best part of the film, Helen Mirren as the Queen, to take over and breathe life to the material without much intrusion. He makes good use of real news footage to bring certain realism to the story. One can only speculate what really goes on inside Buckingham Palace and Downing Street, but the film gives us a rare glimpse into the lives of these almost-mythical beings, and does an incredible job of making us relate to them. And by George, her majesty Helen Mirren deserves to be the Queen at the Oscars.
Stars: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Peter Morgan
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 97 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 10
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 8.1 out of 10