May 14, 2009
Article taken from The Guardian.
Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning turn in Stephen Frears’s 2006 film keeps it convincing, even with the strange bedfellows.
In the early hours of 31 August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales was injured in a car crash in Paris. She died a few hours later, triggering spontaneous British mourning on a scale unseen since the death of Princess Charlotte of Wales in 1817. Ensconced in Balmoral, the Queen resisted media demands to make public her own grief. What followed was one of the most difficult weeks of her reign.
Tony Blair has just won a landslide election victory, and goes to the palace to irritate the Queen with his disregard for protocol until she testily asks him to form a government. Michael Sheen’s impression of Blair (seen before in The Deal, and reportedly to be seen again in forthcoming Blair-Clinton movie The Special Relationship) is eerily accurate. Playing the Queen, Helen Mirren makes a reference to her first prime minister, Winston Churchill. “He sat in your chair in a frock coat and hat,” she tells Blair, archly. “He was kind enough to give a shy young girl like me quite an education.” “I can imagine,” Blair replies, with a nervous giggle. The audience might also permit itself a nervous giggle at this point: is Mirren going to sex up the Queen? And how are we to remove from our minds the image of the corpulent postwar Churchill trying it on with Her Maj after a few sherrys? Mercifully, from this point on, Mirren’s performance and the film around it pursue a more reserved and more convincing characterisation.
The film uses real archive footage to reconstruct the events leading up to the crash, including some poignant shots of the teenage Diana pre-marriage, fleeing photographers in her Austin Metro. Cut to the Queen and Prince Philip being woken up with news of the accident. The film shows the two of them sharing a bed (not to mention, in a later scene, him cheerfully leaping into it with the words, “Move over, cabbage!”). When Michael Fagan broke into the Queen’s bedroom at Buckingham Palace in 1982, it was acknowledged publicly that the royal couple do not even share a bedroom.
There’s a great scene in a Land Rover where Prince Charles, talking to the Queen about her subjects, asks, “Why do they hate us so much?” She replies, “Not us, dear.” Beyond that, the film can’t seem to decide whether Charles is a grieving husband in touch with the public mood, or a snivelling opportunist terrified of the people’s wrath. Meanwhile, Alex Jennings, playing him, looks so much like Edward VIII that this historian kept having to remind herself she wasn’t watching a movie about a different 20th-century British royal crisis. Thanks to the archive footage, several other characters, including Diana herself and her brother Earl Spencer, effectively play themselves. During Spencer’s famous speech at Diana’s funeral, Mirren really shows why she deserved her Oscar, giving him a perfect imitation of the royal stink-eye.
The contrast between cloistered, timeless royal life at Balmoral and the West Wing-like hustle of the Blairite administration in London is historically credible, and beautifully observed. Sometimes, it’s almost too realistic, like when Blair meets his advisers wearing a Newcastle football shirt emblazoned with his own name and the number 10. Crivvens. Perhaps, all along, he was more like George W Bush than we ever realised. He shocks the Queen by telling her that one in four people wants to abolish the monarchy. After her public capitulation to their demands, though, he says this has “all gone away”. Polls can be found to confirm that 25% anti-royal statistic, though it might strike you as being actually quite low. But the way the film presents it is misleading. The level of support for republicanism in Britain has remained remarkably consistent at around 15-20% for decades, including before and after Diana’s death.
A commendable piece of historical film-making, quiet and dignified in exactly the way that the Queen herself, according to this film at least, wanted to be.