‘The Queen’ Tries to Get Inside Elizabeth II’s Mind

Sarah Lyall

September 24, 2006

Article taken from the New York Times.


IN a scene from Stephen Frears’s new movie, “The Queen,” Elizabeth II is shown driving a Range Rover at her family’s remote Scottish retreat, trapped in an unpleasant conversation with her eldest son, Prince Charles.

The subject is Diana, Princess of Wales, whose death that week has sent Britain into a convulsion of collective grief (not shared by the royal family). When an emotionally confused Charles begins to babble about what a good mother Diana was — physically affectionate, full of love — it is clear what he is really saying: “You never hugged me as a child.”

That’s it for him. Abruptly the queen gets out of the car and opens the back door, liberating a passel of eager dogs. Her voice lifts. “Walkies!” she trills.

The situation is of course imagined, the pair played by actors (Helen Mirren as the queen, Alex Jennings as Charles), the dialogue wholly made up and the filmmaker’s undertaking a daring one. The period covered by “The Queen,” the extraordinary week after Diana’s death on Aug. 31, 1997, was the strangest time in recent British history. The country was consumed by hysteria; the government and the royal family were locked in an unprecedented battle over how to respond.

Encouraged by a ravening news media, the crowds talked wildly of abolishing the monarchy. But the family itself remained in stubborn, splendid isolation in rural Scotland. The movie, which opens the New York Film Festival on Friday, and in New York theaters next Saturday, examines how the queen, finally ceding to increasingly alarmed entreaties from newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (played with unctuous eagerness by Michael Sheen), returned to London and addressed her subjects live on television when every fiber of her character and upbringing militated against it.

Making a movie that presumes to examine the inner life of the queen of England — and has her, for instance, padding around the house in a fluffy, rose-colored bathrobe — presented any number of intriguing problems.

For instance: how to portray her grumpy husband, Prince Philip (played by James Cromwell), as a credible member of the human race and not a lampoonable caricature? How to show Elizabeth’s flaws but also her humanity, when you believe (as Mr. Frears and his screenwriter, Peter Morgan, do) that the monarchy is an absurd anachronism? How to get her relationship with the image-obsessed prime minister just right?

And perhaps most of all, Mr. Frears and Mr. Morgan had to figure out how to breathe life into a figure of larger-than-life mystery, a woman both ubiquitous and unknowable.

“If you make films about living people, you always feel a responsibility and you bend over backwards,” Mr. Frears said in a telephone interview. “With the queen you’re not only dealing with your responsibility toward her, but everyone in the audience has very strong feelings and knows a lot about her. So you don’t do it casually. You have to be fair.”

The film has already drawn ecstatic reviews here. It even got an admiring endorsement from Patrick Jephson, Diana’s former private secretary, who wrote in The Spectator that “it might just be the best and most important film ever made about the Windsors.”

Dame Helen is an old hand at playing English queens. (She just won an Emmy Award for her title performance in the Channel 4 miniseries “Elizabeth I.”) Her work in “The Queen” brought her another prize this month — the best actress award at the Venice Film Festival — and reviews have praised the exquisite subtlety with which she evokes the inner life of a person to whom public duty is everything.

She looks and sounds the part, with the help of a gray wig, strategic padding and an upper-crust voice that sounds pilfered from one of Elizabeth’s annual Christmas addresses (the only time that most Britons generally hear the queen speak).

For research Dame Helen steeped herself in Elizabethiana, she said, reading biographies and watching old film clips, focusing on films of the young, pre-queen Elizabeth in order to get a sense of her off-duty world.

“Her iconic role is something she accepts and plays and has played all of her life,” Dame Helen said in a telephone interview. “There is this massive great structure that is the monarchy, performing all the things that the British public feels the monarchy should perform. But the extraordinary thing is that within the structure there is a human being, with insecurities and dignity and strength of character.”

In writing the character of the queen, Mr. Morgan said, he thought of his own mother, of the same generation and similar in her essential beliefs. “To do a hatchet job would have felt like matricide,” he said.

“My mother is uncomplaining, stoic, never sees a doctor, would be in incredible pain and never mention it, thinks aspirin is decadent, walks around turning the lights off and wears clothes that are 30 years old,” he said. Such an attitude contrasts with the “narcissism and intolerance of pain of our generation, to whom happiness is a God-given right,” he said.

“The queen never shouts or moans,” he said in a telephone interview, “and in the end that was what really won me over, despite all my nascent republican instincts.”

Mr. Morgan did his homework too. (He is best known as the screenwriter for the BBC film “The Deal,” which describes the famous dinner in 1994 at which Mr. Blair and the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, divvied up power in the Labor Party; Mr. Frears also directed.)

In addition to reading and watching news clips from the time and poring through royal biographies, Mr. Morgan interviewed many insiders from all the various royal and political camps. He would not give details, but said he talked to anyone and everyone, from high-ranking courtiers to lowly stable hands.

The trouble wasn’t lack of sources, or even difficulty in getting them to talk, but cutting through the thickets of self-justification and heavily spun revisionism.

“It’s a great mistake to think of the royal family as having one line,” Mr. Morgan said. “It doesn’t. It’s riven with rivalry and spin and venality.”

He continued: “I found the whole time that I had to dampen down the inflammatory nature of what I was being told. You have no idea how much hosing down and cooling of information we had to do. We were shedding and throwing out sensational information the whole time.”

In one scene that was cut, Prince Charles, accompanying his ex-wife’s body back from Paris, telephones his companion, Camilla Parker Bowles, from the airplane. “She only had one earring,” the prince repeats, distraught, of Diana’s corpse, before noting that her death will set back the public’s acceptance of his and Mrs. Parker Bowles’s relationship for years.

Mr. Morgan had that conversation’s existence on impeccable authority, he said, as he did another excised scene in which Charles, convinced he is going to be assassinated by the pro-Diana mob, leaves letters on his desk to be opened in the event of his death.

But plenty of knowing touches made it in. At one point Elizabeth is shown carrying a Tupperware dish of lamb stew to an al fresco lunch on the estate, a reference to members of the royal family’s habit of helping themselves to breakfast cereal from Tupperware containers. On another occasion the prime minister is glimpsed at home, wearing a Newcastle United soccer jersey. Charles tries ineffectually to stand up to his mother; the queen makes a little dig at her sister, Princess Margaret; Mr. Blair goes off to do the dishes while his wife, Cherie (a snide Helen McCrory), a lawyer, catches up on paperwork.

The film is almost as much about Mr. Blair as it is about Elizabeth. When Diana died, he barely knew the queen and was overawed by her. But he read the public mood far better than she did, scoring public points with his word-perfect description of Diana as the “people’s princess.” (The film notes that the phrase was written by his chief spokesman, Alastair Campbell, played by Mark Bazeley, who is also shown inserting the softening phrase “as a grandmother” into the queen’s reluctant and belated television address.)

Some of the movie’s best scenes point up the contrast between the thrusting new prime minister and the fusty monarchy. Mr. Blair interrupts the royal family with incessant telephone calls to Balmoral, until the queen’s bad-tempered husband barks, “Tell him to call back.”

Mr. Blair’s left-leaning wife is unimpressed by the royal family’s machinations when Prince Charles tries to go behind his mother’s back to open a direct channel to the prime minister. They are, Mrs. Blair says, a “bunch of freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters.”

The film studiously does not take sides between the queen’s old-fashioned reticence and the prime minister’s modern emotionalism. If it has a villain, it is “us — the idiots on the streets,” Mr. Morgan said.

He said he sympathized with and admired Mr. Blair too, or at least he did back then.

“There was no way of being able to write, in the context of this particular week, how I really feel about Tony Blair now, with all the disappointment and betrayal,’’ Mr. Morgan said. “That was sort of his finest hour, when he wanted to reform and radicalize.”

The film ends with a meeting between the queen and prime minister two months later, when the two discuss how the country turned — for that brief, crazy time — so virulently against her. Elizabeth looks shrewdly at Mr. Blair and warns him that the same thing will happen to him one day.

“All political careers end in ignominy and failure,” Mr. Morgan said. A politically emasculated Mr. Blair is learning that now. But Elizabeth, 80 years old and a queen for 54 of them, is thriving.

Script developed by Never Enough Design