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The Queen paints succinct portrait of modern controversy

Brian Doxtader | Friday, February 16, 2007

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a five-part series on the 2007 Oscar nominees for Best Picture.

“The Queen” is much like the British Royal Family itself – elegant and old-fashioned, but with an air of importance and respectability that makes it impossible to ignore. It has been an overwhelming critical success (it rests among the best reviewed films of the year), and is a legitimate contender for the Best Picture Oscar.

While Princess Diana never appears as a character (except through archive footage), the pall of her shadow hangs heavily over “The Queen.” The film explores the days after the death of Princess Di, deeply examining how the royal family dealt with the tragedy. Though the royal family believes that private mourning is appropriate, the public demands an outward display of emotion. Protocol and tradition clash with the need for progressive modernity, and it is up to Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) to compromise with Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) in order to maintain the family’s respectability and relevance.

“The Queen” is not, primarily, a film about politics. Instead, it is a simple (though not simplistic) story about the fear of change. In abandoning the political for the personal, director Stephen Frears provides great insight into a woman whose entire life revolves around tradition, and the anguished struggle she faces in potentially breaking that tradition. It is this focus that elevates “The Queen” and allows it to transcend its origins – many films like this feel like award fodder, but “The Queen” has more on its mind, and its breadth in expressing itself is remarkable.

Helen Mirren has essentially already locked up the Best Actress Oscar race with this film, as she gives a pitch-perfect performance as Elizabeth II. Balancing her loyalty to tradition with an understanding for the need to change and modernize, Mirren manages to humanize Elizabeth and give dimension to the Queen’s seemingly impenetrable exterior. Michael Sheen is quite good as Tony Blair, and James “That’ll Do, Pig” Cromwell is memorable as the curmudgeonly Prince Philip.

Frears’ directing is excellent, and he intercuts real-life footage with the film quite well. There is very little flash to his directorial style, but his restraint and control are remarkable. There are several occasions in which he seems to instinctively know that the writing and acting will carry a scene, letting the material guide itself.

“The Queen” is a bit heavy on symbolism, but its understated style fits the material quite well and prevents it from feeling too overwrought. It is to the filmmakers’ credit that they never let the film drag, which may account for its relative brevity. At 97 minutes, “The Queen” is a lean and effective picture that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It would be easy for a film like this to become ostentatiously bloated, but Frears is smart enough not to let it get bogged down – it remains focused throughout, and the director is smart enough to allow Mirren to dominate almost every scene. Thus, thankfully, the film feels much less pretentious than might be expected. The characters are fully fleshed out, and none of them feel like caricatures. Screenwriter Peter Morgan has an ear for dialogue, making even the most formal of language sound natural and comprehensible, and the acting is top-notch throughout.

A film like “The Queen” is difficult to make, if only because the event is still so recent. Yet Frears’ film hits all the right notes – it’s a human story about a person struggling to accept a changing world, and the filmmakers and Mirren clearly understand this. That “The Queen” is a good film is itself a feat, but that it is a great film is nothing less than an extraordinary accomplishment.