Retro Review – The Queen

the queen poster

Overview

Synopsis Queen Elizabeth II is faced with a difficult choice between tradition and appeasement after the untimely death of Princess Diana.

Length 1 hour, 43 minutes

Release Date October 6, 2006

 

Rating PG-13

Distribution Miramax (DVD)

Directing Stephen Frears

Writing Peter Morgan

Composition Alexandre Desplat

Starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, Alex Jennings, James Cromwell

The passing of Queen Elizabeth II marks the end of an era. It’s difficult to articulate what exactly she meant for many people around the world, but she was a constant unwavering presence that typified the meaning of duty, grace, respect, and royalty. As an Australian, I would have difficulty listing the utter circus of Prime Ministers we’ve had revolving like a carousel into leadership over the past decade, so it was always an unspoken comfort for the Queen to merely be there, in the background, as a cornerstone of stability even though she was half a world away. To put things in perspective, the Federation of Australia occurred in 1901, and Queen Elizabeth II reigned from 1952; she was our Queen for well over half of this country’s lifetime. She was a symbol and representative of an older generation, a mother-like matriarchal figure for those my parents age, and a grandmother for those younger. I can only imagine it was a stronger bond for those in the United Kingdom.

As such, it’s difficult to grapple a world without her presence. Her face has been on our currency my entire life. The phrase “our Queen” always contained an element of familiarity and fondness (and of course, there was never any question as to what queen we were referring towards—her life was synonymous with her title). There has been such a plethora of references towards her throughout cinema, television, radio, literature, and theatre. She has truly made her mark on history.

Possibly the most prominent film concerning her reign created within more modern times was 2006’s The Queen. With the story focussing more on Elizabeth’s later years, it covered the portion of her life that intersected with my own, which might be why it was the first movie that came to mind when I felt the urge to watch something as a way to honour her memory. It’s an odd choice given the subject matter concerns the death of Princess Diana, but after a rewatch, it turns out it manages to articulate a number of things quite well.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Historical footage regarding the death of Princess Diana is viewed. A deer’s decapitated carcass hangs in a room while its head is mounted nearby.

Language/Crude Humor: The f-bomb is dropped once. Other swears are rarely uttered. The r-word is said which may offend those with disabilities.

Drug/Alcohol References: Wine is drunk responsibly.

Sexual Content: Historical footage regarding Diana’s thoughts on Prince Charles’ inappropriate interest in Camilla is featured. Tabloid news is seen about Diana’s new love interests.

Spiritual Content: Twice it is mentioned that the Queen views her role as one that was God-given.

Other Negative Content: A number of disparaging comments are made about Princess Diana and the Royal family.

Positive Content: The film displays a good lesson about learning to heed advice from others, navigating compromises, and knowing when it’s appropriate to break from tradition.

Review

The Queen is an unusual drama in terms of narrative storytelling. There isn’t a proper antagonist. One could argue the ghost of Princess Diana metaphorically haunts the Royal family throughout the movie, though her death is treated more as the catalyst of events, with flashbacks used as exposition for those that may have been too young to be aware of her impact on the world. Instead, the film’s conflict is an internal one, as it narrows its focus on the tightrope Queen Elizabeth II treads as she attempts to navigate a life that must uphold the traditions and history of her country, whilst adapting and listening to the ever-changing desires of the citizens she serves.

The film dramatizes the clash between two incredibly influential women. As depicted in the movie, Princess Diana was nicknamed the “People’s Princess”. She adopted a more personalised approach to her royal duties when she was part of the monarchy, frequently assisting charities and highlighting a number of worthy causes, effectively breaking down the barrier that normally lingers between royalty and the common man. It’s a considerate attitude which has been beautifully adopted by her two sons in their adult years, and her words and actions resonated with the general public. That is how people remembered her, though as the film notes, there were two Dianas: the one the general public perceived, and the woman that was known on a more personal level amongst close friends and family.

In contrast, the Queen undertakes her duties with a deep sense of regality. Throughout the film she occasionally name-drops the names of her ancestors in everyday conversation, all of them famous individuals, past Kings and Queens, that bore a legacy in their own right. She doesn’t just care about British history or culture, rather she is the continual embodiment and reflection of that familial legacy. Hers is a world where any deviation from past protocol results in setting a precedence in British history, where her demeanour is scrutinised at the highest level, commentating not only on her own behaviour, but also her ancestry, and by extension, the kingdom itself. While the Queen also interacted with the public while serving at certain events, it undertook a different quality in nature compared to Princess Diana’s efforts. It’s not a case of one being right and another being wrong, rather these two women demonstrated different styles when approaching their duties. However, a line was crossed during an interview with Martin Bashir in 1995, where Princess Diana spilt too many details and made several disparaging remarks regarding the breakdown of her marriage, forcing the Royals into damage control. The film merely features a clip or two from that interview, with the bad blood between Diana and the Queen presented more as something that’s assumed knowledge. Diana’s words may have been apt, though her method of publicly dragging the Queen’s son through the ire of the media was certainly viewed as distasteful in the reigning monarch’s eyes.

Alex Jennings plays Prince Charles in The Queen.

This tug-of-war between maintaining both public and private lives is the central conflict in The Queen, with the issue reaching its peak when it comes to the question as to how to lay the People’s Princess to rest. It’s the only film that I can recall that deals with the peculiar topic of grief surrounding the death of the ultra famous. Diana was known by many around the world, so naturally there was sadness with her passing, and since she was so present within society, the public desired a more personalised farewell. Yet putting on a display outside of mandated events is hardly the Queen’s typical approach, and with the mental health of Diana’s two young boys—William and Harry—to think about, a more private affair is selected. It’s a film ultimately about misunderstandings, where dignity is misinterpreted for coldness, and where the desire to break tradition, while well-meaning, intersects with injustice and rudeness. Caught in the middle is the Queen who tries to serve and appease all parties regardless of her own personal thoughts on the matter.

The casting in The Queen is superb. Helen Mirren won the Oscar for Best Actress, and for good reason. She, and a lot of the other cast members, embodied the persona and mannerisms of their respective roles to the extent that by the end of the film it’s hard to believe the real people don’t actually look like them. It’s a film that shows these characters at their most candid, displaying moments where they feel like every other dysfunctional family in the world, while also exploring their unique relationship dynamics, where royalty, professionalism, power, and the unconditional love of familial bonds all collide. Initially the movie may seem to tear at the Royal family’s reputation, particularly with the lack of a true antagonist and the Queen is left to be her own worst enemy. Yet as the story unfolds and the audience begins to learn about the Queen’s conundrum through the fresh perspective of a newly sworn in Prime Minister, Tony Blair (played by Michael Sheen) her motivations become clear and the story ends up being a testament to her strength of character. This film also deserves some praise for displaying Prince Charles in a more sympathetic light—his divorce with Diana and simultaneous relationship with Camilla left a wound that has been brutally slow to heal, and is still a factor in his unpopularity today. It would have been easy to portray him in a negative way, though the film is fair.

Michael Sheen takes on the role of newly appointed Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

If there are any flaws, then it’s mainly with the narrative itself. Tony Blair’s character has a habit of directly blurting out the movie’s central learnings and observations, although without that role, things might be too nuanced to be interpreted as the screenwriter intends. The pacing is uneven at times, spending one too many minutes exploring an unnecessary metaphor towards the end of the second act. The plot is also rather middling compared to other films in the genre. However this “flaw” could be seen as a tribute to what a remarkable woman Queen Elizabeth II truly was. If these series of misunderstandings form one of the greatest conflicts she faced in her later life, then may we all be blessed with such scandalous lives. It’s genuinely hard to think of another person with the same level of fame as the Queen that hasn’t been embroiled in severe controversy at some point or another; Elizabeth’s transgressions are a joke compared to most.  

Whenever I think of Queen Elizabeth II the Colossians “House Rules” come to mind (Colossians 3:18-4:1). These verses have been horribly misinterpreted over the years, but to paraphrase the central message, it’s essentially instructing that no matter a person’s station in life, do your best as a way of serving the Lord. Try to be above reproach and don’t make it easy to be rebuked. If you want to see what it’s like to always take the high road, then look no further than the Queen. She rejected debauchery, avoided scandals, didn’t engage with gossip, and refused to sink to the level of her enemies by dragging them through the press. As a result, she was one of the most respected leaders in the modern world. Throughout the film it’s mentioned twice that Elizabeth saw her role as God-led, and while she was human and wasn’t perfect, it’s easy to see through the way she conducted herself that she possessed the many fruits of the Spirit. She was discerning, embodied grace, tactful, and a faithful servant both to the Lord and her subjects. Even anti-monarchists were seen to admit they’ve admired her dedication to her role, respecting that she stayed true to her word and served right to the end. Due to her faithfulness, it is currently reported that her funeral was the most watched live broadcast event in history—literally billions of people tuned in to hear the Gospel message as part of the service. Her life brought glory to God. May she rest in peace within her Heavenly Father’s kingdom.  

“The grief of this day, felt not only by the late Queen’s family but all round the nation, Commonwealth and world, arises from her abundant life and loving service, now gone from us. She was joyful, present to so many, touching a multitude of lives” – The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, during the Queen’s state funeral at Westminster Abbey.

As for The Queen, it may follow a specific set of events that take place back in 1997, and while some of its gravity might fade over time, it is a film that has aged well. The issues the institution faced then are still being dealt with now. It also unfurls and unpicks the many emotional layers that are present within high profile deaths, making it an oddly reflective piece given the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II. It’s an honest and forthright film that provides a fair critique while also honouring the life of the longest reigning monarch in British history.

Positives

+ Award winning acting
+ High production values
+ Fair with its portrayal
+ Great exploration of rarer themes

Negatives

- Small-scale plot
- Relies on the audience having prior knowledge
- Some pacing issues

The Bottom Line

The Queen is a small-scale drama that may appear to tear apart the Royal family from the outset, though for those with a little more background knowledge, it slowly turns into a deeper and respectful look into mindset of one of the world’s longest reigning monarchs.

 

8.4

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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