Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Movie List: The Queen (2006)

Film: The Queen
Director: Stephen Frears
Oscar Nominations: 6 (Best Picture; Best Actress, Helen Mirren*; Best Costume Design, Consolata Boyle; Best Director, Stephen Frears; Best Original Score, Alexandre Desplat; Best Original Screenplay, Peter Morgan)
*denotes win

A few months ago, the entire world went gaga over the royal wedding, an event that captured the hopelessly romantic imaginations of millions with it's extravagant expressions of love. It served as a reminder that the British monarchy, though still the guiding light of British politics (and those of several Commonwealth nations as well), it has become distanced from modern society, creating a disparity between the monarchy and its subjects. The Queen examines a pivotal point in this fractious relationship by focusing on the days following the death of Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth II's public and personal reactions to the traumatic event.

Before her death, Diana (seen in archive footage) is not exactly a warmly received presence in the royal family. Prince Philip (James Cromwell) dismisses every thought of her, while Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) says very little. Upon her death, the public expects the monarchy to express condolences and honor her, despite the fact that she was no longer officially a member of the family. This only helps the popularity of newly-elected prime minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who does express his grief over Diana's family and calls on the Queen to make a statement. However, as the two meet and discuss how to handle the situation, each one begins to question their convictions: does royal protocol really matter anymore? Does British society have the right to force change to tradition?

The film's strengths, structurally, lie in it's dichotomy of change vs. tradition, and how that is reflected within an institution as powerful as the British monarchy. Peter Morgan's screenplay dives right into the heart of the matter, exploring the idea within the confines of the royals themselves. Unfortunately, this gives little space for Blair's side of the story, and the scenes surrounding him and his headquarters often feel as if they were dropped in from another movie. Frears does his best to incorporate both sides, but his direction, visually at least, never puts together all the pieces into a complete film. At times the film doesn't even feel like something that would be nominated for Best Picture, but rather like a glorified made-for-TV movie that you'd find on Lifetime on a Saturday night.

What saves the film, then, is the cast, specifically the phenomenal, controlled performance from Mirren. Though Sheen does well as Blair (and he should, since he's practically made a career out of portraying him) and Cromwell is always a delight, Mirren completely owns the film, never letting you take your eyes off her. Of course, a lot of the attention came from how similar she looked to the actual Queen Elizabeth II, but she absolutely nails the character through subtle, nuanced mannerisms and simple reactions. There's never a moment in the film in which you don't believe that she is the Queen of England. Mirren disappears into the character and delivers a performance that earned the Oscar, which, considering the field that year, is no easy feat.

The Queen has some interesting points, but it doesn't completely live up to it's promise. It's worth seeing, though, for the absolutely regal Mirren. 

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