Stephen Frears’ “The Queen” begins with a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”, and in a way, the movie is a bit Shakespearean in nature. There are struggles for power, swayed allegiances, troubled monarchs, unhappy masses, and familial issues.
However, you won’t find any grand fight scenes with lots of flowing blood. There are few speeches that literally reveal a character’s thoughts. A character’s death does dominate the story, but you won’t see it on screen. That’s because “The Queen” is a film where the beauty is found in the particulars.
The story, when laid out plainly, might seem a bit slow. It revolves around the death of Princess Diana in 1997. This occurs near the beginning of the story, and then follows the response of both the Royal Family, headed by Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), and the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen).
The main struggle is over the Royals’ refusal to acknowledge Diana, whom they deeply dislike, as a member of the family, since she and Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) have divorced. Blair recognizes the love that the public has for Diana, and through several phone calls seeks to convince the vacationing Queen to act accordingly with the people’s wishes for an official expression of grief.
That acknowledgment comes slowly and stubbornly, and as time goes by, it is found in details that might seem minute: a flag at half-mast, the presence of the Queen in London, a television address, etc. However, these details are important to the British, and similar details are important to the film.
One such detail is the absolutely fabulous performance by Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II. She is a woman used to keeping up appearances, with her every move being analyzed and linked into a responsibility to provide the nation with a symbol of elegance and grace. Because such a façade is required, she cannot let herself be overcome by emotion. Emotion does come, though, and Mirren’s handling of this duality makes the role shine.
The nature of the film and its direction seem to reflect a line spoken by the Queen early in the film, when she has heard about Diana’s death. She tells Blair, “We do things in this country quietly, and with dignity.” While the tragedy causes grief around the world, Elizabeth and the Royal Family show calm and restraint, but also a detachment from reality that comes from living a mile high above the rest, and ends up becoming a dangerous flaw.
Similarly, the film is not aggressive in its theme or emotions, but maintains a quietness that allows the film’s impact to develop without being forced. The dialogue is crisp and witty, and the power struggles play out over rational conversations that present a logical progression of the film’s ideas, rather than through bold statements.
Ultimately, it is a tale about a ruler out of touch with her subjects, and examines what it means to be a monarch in today’s world. Is there a place for a king or queen in this era? It does not present a definite answer. What it gives is a patient story of near-Shakespearean themes told with a coupling of grace and power, and unexpectedly, humor.