A period of national mourning can be tricky to navigate. Radio and tv schedules have switched to their long pre-planned patterns of sad music (Chasing Cars, The Shallows) and all sporting events are cancelled for the foreseeable; in the UK, grieving is not a matter of choice, it’s compulsory and expected that you behave in a certain way. How you mourn in public is the subject Stephen Frears’ film from 2006; whether you care for the monarchy or not, and Frears is on record as saying he has zero time for them to put it politely, The Queen was someone you heard about every day of your life, and making a film in which she was the central character was a huge deal, both then and now.
Frears had made a virtue of highlighting unusual double-acts, from the gay couple in My Beautiful Launderette to the theatre-managers in Mrs Henderson Presents. Peter Morgan had done the same with Frost/Nixon and Rush, and the team worked together to create this study of how the Queen herself and the British political establishment reacted to the death of Princess Diana. Played by Helen Mirren, The Queen initially displays a stiff upper lip, observes protocols and wants to keep any grieving private, while the prime minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) is media savvy enough to know that there’s political capital to be made from the nation’s distress, and recognises a potential banana skin in wait for anyone who doesn’t toe the line.
Playing a character used to being constantly in the public eye, Helen Mirren brings her own experience to playing The Queen, capturing the recognisable mannerisms but also suggesting the inner turmoil of a monarch who sees the demands of her job change in a changing world. There’s a key, semi-mystical moment here in which The Queen looks into the eyes of a stag on her estate, giving us a glimpse into the soul of someone who rarely gets afforded such personal detail. Those who observed the UK political scene at the time found much to amuse them in the depiction of both the royal family and the grasping ambition of the (worse than Tories) Labour party in this witty yet empathetic drama. For many who saw the Queen as an austere, cold, diffident figure, it was also something of a revelation in that whatever else Frears felt, his film humanised her, suggesting an inner life that the tabloid frenzy aimed to diminish with a daily diet of salacious stories about her and her children.
While I was working behind the bar of my local cinema a few years earlier, I’d noticed the unappreciated but heroic job that the finance officer did in holding the place together. I nominated her for official recognition, and was caught off-guard when, somehow on my recommendation, then Prime-Minister Tony Blair wrote to the Queen and suggested that the finance officer should be made a Member of the British Empire (MBE). I was called into to see her in her office, and was humbled to see how much the honour meant to her as she prepared to take the trip down to Buckingham Palace with her family. Arguments will continue about the role and usefulness of the monarchy, and regular readers will know my own thoughts on the matter, but I retell this personal anecdote by way of explanation to a wider audience as to why the Queen’s death is such a big deal. Like it or not, she was woven into the fabric of our lives, and her death offers a moment to pause and reflect on someone whose prominent position allowed her to affect many others in significant ways.