I first watched The Queen many years ago and liked it then. Since it’s the 20th anniversary of the week of Princess Diana’s death, I thought it’s a good idea to revisit it again.
The Queen is about the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and then new British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), specifically during the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, which was the first major crisis that Tony Blair’s government encountered. It contrasts the traditionalist monarchy, stuck in customs of the past, with the modernist, populist Tony Blair and his Labour government who had just won the election by a landslide on a platform of reform and change — how in this extraordinary circumstance of Princess Diana’s death, the age-old traditions of the monarchy and their preference to keep things quiet and “dignified” nearly damaged the royal family’s image irreparably, and Tony Blair had to persuade the Queen to go back to London and give her grieving people the public show of support they wanted.
First, you have to understand the circumstances that led to the Princess’ death becoming a crisis for the royal family. At the time of her death, the royal family, including Princes William and Harry, were in Balmoral in Scotland where the Queen stays during summer. The decision was made to stay in Balmoral instead of going back to London immediately, partly to let the princes grieve in private away from the spotlight, and partly due to the status of Princess Diana as an ex-member of the royal family. The Queen felt that there was no need to make a public statement about what to her was a private affair.
However, Princess Diana was extremely popular — “the People’s Princess”, as she became known after Tony Blair called her that in his first statement after news of her death broke — and the tremendous outpouring of grief by the public was beyond expectation and required unprecedented ways of handling it. Unfortunately, the Palace refused to put out a public statement, due to the reasons mentioned above, and to make things worse, there was no flag flown at half-mast at Buckingham Palace. Royal tradition dictates that the Royal Standard will only fly above the castle when the Queen is in residence, which she was not, because she was in Balmoral. But to the public, the Royal Standard is just a flag, and this apparent lack of care and any acknowledgement of respect towards Princess Diana’s death caused the public’s anger to turn towards the Queen. The paparazzi and the relentless hounding of the tabloid media played a direct hand in killing Princess Diana, but many people also felt that the royal family and their ostracism of Princess Diana during her unhappy marriage to Prince Charles played a part in driving her to her untimely death, and the radio silence just made it worst.
(This whole no flag at half-mast debacle during Princess Diana’s death is why the Union Jack now always flies above all the palaces that the Queen is not in residence in.)
Basically, the whole movie is about the royal family mishandling the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, and Tony Blair’s increasingly urgent attempts to persuade the Queen to disregard royal traditions in this extraordinary time and help the public through their grief, or possibly damage the monarchy’s image irreparably. Finally, when the tide of public opinion has turned against the Queen, reflected in the papers and on the streets, and the Queen finds out that 1 in 4 people are now in favour of abolishing monarchy, she capitulates and they go back to London.
The funny thing is, the movie manages to make most of the adult members of the royal family look bad except the Queen. We see Prince Philip (played by James Cromwell) as a cantankerous, unsympathetic, snobbish old man who disliked Princess Diana, and Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) as a fearful man trying to cover his ass when he couldn’t persuade his mother to treat her death as a special circumstance, knowing how popular Princess Diana was and how much the public disliked him for ending the marriage due to his infidelity.
However, the Queen is shown as a grandmother trying to keep her grandsons out of the spotlight, and a monarch trying to do what she thought her people would want of her, which was to handle matters quietly and with dignity, and feeling betrayed by her people turning against her after she has given her whole life in service to them. This was the role that won Helen Mirren the Best Actress Oscar that year, and it is well-deserved. The Queen actually invited Helen Mirren to visit her in Buckingham Palace, because I suppose she was impressed with how well she portrayed her in the film, but Helen Mirren had to turn down the invitation because she was filming National Treasure: Book of Secrets then. (National Treasure: Book of Secrets!!! I liked that movie, but of all movies, *that* movie that prevented her from going to see the Queen?! Though she did eventually get to meet her a few years later.)
Tony Blair comes out very well too as the then popular leader who understood the sentiment on the ground far better and whose advice saved the monarchy in that period of crisis. He is shown to admire the Queen, even though his wife and members of his staff were anti-monarchists. I thought Michael Sheen did great in that role, so it is a pity that he wasn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actor at all. (Apparently others think he did great in that role too, because they cast him as Tony Blair in two other shows.)
Much news archive footage of Princess Diana was used in the film, as well as actual interviews with the people that gathered outside Buckingham Palace, giving the film an air of authenticity. The film is apparently as true to real events as it can be, with writer Peter Morgan having conducted extensive interviews with people close to the royal family and the Prime Minister to find out what happened that week, though of course, liberties were taken for private conversations. Peter Morgan is now creator of The Crown, which is a Netflix series about the early days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign which I’m intending to watch next. I have always admired the Queen, though I’m not entirely sure what she does, and after watching the movie, I can’t help but have more respect for her for lasting so long, through over 60 years of changing governments, while still generally being revered by the British public.
(By the way, as I was writing this, Kensington Palace just announced that Prince William and Kate Middleton are expecting their third child. What a coincidence!)