The opening scene of The Queen takes place on May 2nd, 1997. Her Majesty Elizabeth II sits for a portrait, watching news coverage of Tony Blair’s campaign for Prime Minister — he emphasizes the role of modernization in an effective government that serves the people. She sighs and makes a remark about “the joy of being partial.” Immediately, the tone for The Queen is set — a monarch, whose existence is grounded firmly in tradition and decorum, is confronted with growing demands for change and, in essence, an abandonment of the only world she has ever known.
Helen Mirren has embraced this role, expertly capturing the complexities of director Stephen Frears’s depiction of Elizabeth II. Immediately, Elizabeth seems to embody the qualities of a typical British monarch — she is distant and seemingly emotionless, comfortably couched in luxury. Michael Sheen brings energy to his role of Tony Blair, providing a foil to Mirren’s Elizabeth.
The two actors and characters complement each other beautifully; this effect is restated subtly in various visual cues and parallels between the two. One scene in particular, a phone conversation between the two, depicts each head of state in their respective studies. Elizabeth’s study is impressive, replete with volumes upon volumes of leather-bound books and the trappings of royalty. Blair’s, on the other hand, is merely an extended collection of books lining a series of shelves in his home.
The film interestingly explores the nature of the relationship between a monarch and the prime minister. To put it simply, a monarch usually does not need to worry about such concepts as “job security,” whereas the prime minister, an elected official, is bound by his or her responsibility to the people and depends on the public’s support. Blair is depicted as being a “man of the people,” encouraging familiarity and the dropping of formalities. Elizabeth blanches at this thought, and during their first meeting it is clear to Blair and the audience that Elizabeth has supreme control of her domain.
However, Princess Diana’s unexpected death muddies the once clear waters of life as a member of the royal family. Traditionally isolated from the public and leading private lives, save for ceremonial events and various occasions, the royal family is rarely in the public eye. However, Princess Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles, the public’s fascination with her, and the total honesty of her opinions about her relationship with the royal family brought the once hidden life of the royales into view for the masses.
Similarly, Diana’s death provokes an outpouring of grief from the public. The royal family considers the death of Diana a personal tragedy and begins to treat it as such. However, the public demands a statement from the Queen. Blair is forced to mediate between the two interests. He encourages the crowd during a speech by referring to Diana as “The People’s Princess,” yet he must attempt to strike a compromise between the royal family’s request for privacy and the public’s insistence of a statement of mourning from the queen.
Although it seems to move slowly in some parts, the film is well-made, expertly juxtaposing contrasting images. Archival footage of news coverage of Diana’s life and death is spliced together with Frears’s well-composed scenes. The transitions between these two types of media seamlessly meld the public and private lives of the royal family. Additionally, other visual elements of the film are vividly orchestrated. While The Queen may not appeal to the typical college student, it is a thought-provoking look into the world of royal politics and diplomacy.