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The Queen


‘…witty yet empathetic drama…’

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.


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  1. I’ve managed to avoid any royal events of any kind for 50 years so I didn’t see this when it came out, even though I like Stephen Frears and Helen Mirren. I think that this ‘official mourning’ period could be catastrophic for the BBC which appears to have gone overboard on the change of monarch. I’m also shocked by the Guardian which yesterday gave over half its Saturday paper to royal stories and memoriabilia. We are in for a rough few months but as long as my internet connection still works cinema archives will keep me going. btw the football authorities may have postponed matches but cricket and rugby league/union have all carried on. Any organisation that follows the BBC line will eventually suffer I feel.

    • Wise words. I get that this is a set piece that the BBC have been prepping for decades, but there has literally been no news now for three days about anything other than who is standing beside who and where at Balmoral and the same old faces todaying frantically for attention. The world has just gone away, there are no other voices; when I’m driving, I literally can’t find any station on FM that’s not paying some kind of tribute. If Diana’s death and the Queen’s reaction to it proved to be the defining moment of the monarchy, then this film just about gets it right; it therefore seems ironic that an inflexible attitude to mourning seems to have survived her. Frears hated the monarchy, but the result was a remarkably even-handed film that does tap into something positive about The Queen, but we’re 3 days in and I’m exhausted by the media overkill already.

  2. As much as I enjoy The Crown, I think this is the platonic idea of Elizabeth II on-screen – the first film to humanize her without going too far. I loved the Queen as Americans loved the Queen — as a symbol of the steadfastness and duty that won the second war without much fuss. There’s a lot of useful mythology there. And as I’m not one of her subjects, the relationship is uncomplicated because she couldn’t tell me what to do and I didn’t have to pay my taxes to keep up her house.

    The British Monarchy is fascinating – how it has managed to hang on, and change just enough to stay afloat. We’ll see how King Charles does now that he finally has his chance at the helm…

    • We probably have a less romantic view here; Charles is seen as damaged goods, hardly someone to admire, wouldn’t stand up to his manipulative mother so he could marry who he wanted, ended up ruining a young girls life and setting up a chain of events which led to her death. These people are rich and powerful, but few of them are admirable. But the ongoing soap operas keep people engaged with them, even if they live in a way that’s totally detached from reality…but arranged marriages are for Game of Thrones, and the way Diana was treated as breeding stock won’t be quickly forgotten…

      • It might have been very different with Mirren who managed the emotional transition incredibly well and the scene with the stag owes more to her acting than the direction.

        • She absolutely sells that film in a good way. But they worked more carefully around agreed facts that films about royalty usually do. Frears really takes risks, and the stag is the one moment that he allows the audience to plant its own meaning on.

  3. I reckon there’s often key scene in a film that brings the character into focus – here, it was that scene in which the queen’s jeep breaks down up in the highlands (easy to forget she trained as a mechanic in the auxiliaries). It’s the only scene I remember, funnily enough.

    • The scene where Blair talks about the royal family tampering with the breaks of Diana’s car always jumped out at me…

  4. I have seen an article or two considering the possibility this would be a great time to “shut down” the whole Royal Family monarchy, but it wasn’t likely to happen any time soon. Do you believe it ever will happen?

    • I think it’s going to be a lot harder to justify the monarchy when most of the members have a blemished reputation for one reason or another. The suffocating weight of the media coverage will certainly cause a backlash for sure, so I can’t see that kind of affection remaining for the surviving characters in this soap-opera…

  5. I haven’t seen this, but remember the whole shebang anyway. I suppose it’s inevitable that the country comes to a standstill, and I’ve had to turn to Planet Rock rather than Radio 2. And now we have King Charles 🙄. There’ll be a lot of people predicting the beginning of the end of the Monarchy I think.

    • I think you are right on all counts. Whatever one thinks of the Queen, and things done in her name, she was a person that many people admired. That, unfortunately, is not true for many of her family, even excluding the obvious falls from grace. A lot of the residual affection rested on one person, and she’s off. Charles’ history doesn’t grab public emotions the same way. See you on Planet Rock!

  6. I have the vaguest memory of having seen this but now I’m not sure. If I did see it then I’ve forgotten it completely.

    Where can I nominate you for an MBE?

    As for the queen, I figure she was 96 so that’s long enough for anyone. She had a good run. I don’t like public figures being woven into anyone’s daily life though. Seems like it’s bad for everyone.

    subject Stephen Frears’ film, into to see her

    • Thanks for the typos. It’s somewhat ironic that this film is about her choice of how to mourn, when the media give us none. The Wind Beneath My Wings, Sacrifice, it’s non stop dirges in the radio and non stop sanctimony if you switch the tv on.

      I don’t need an official reward, your corrections of my typos are more than enough.

  7. Phew, when I first saw this I thought they’d made a film about her already, posthumously and thought “how ghoulish”. Glad to see this is an older one instead.

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