Three years ago one of the finest dramas in recent years hit TV screens in the UK. The Deal was scripted by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears and dramatised the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as they reformed the Labour Party and jostled for the position of leader. It could have descended into a cheap political satire but was a wonderfully audacious and accomplished portrayal of the two dominant figures in recent British politics. The central performances from David Morrissey as Brown and Michael Sheen as Blair were eerily good. Both managed to convey all the familiar mannerisms but also created a convincing persona beneath the accents and make up.
Surprisingly it isn’t available on DVD but Frears has now made a feature film that explores Blair’s relationship with another figure – Queen Elizabeth II – and it is equally good, if not better. Set during the first few months of New Labour in power, it starts off with Blair (again played by Michael Sheen) going to ask the Queen (Helen Mirren) permission to form a new government – as is the tradition in a country that has an “unwritten constitution” – before moving swiftly to the fateful night when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. The film then explores the relationship between the Royal Family and Prime Minister as they both have different opinions on how to respond to an event that has gripped the nation.
Contrasting the media savvy New Labour response with the misjudged aloofness emanating from The House of Windsor, it provides an intelligent and frequently witty look at the UK’s leaders. Although viewers in the US and around the world may not be familiar with Stephen Frears previous dramatisation of British politics, The Queen does contain many similarities. Like The Deal, we get a smart and incisive look at recent history with sharp references to all manner of things from the creation of “The People’s Princess” speech to Prince Philip’s disdain for Diana. The same high level of performance both behind and in front of the camera is plain to see and Frears maintains a sure and impressive grasp of recent British history and the key players in it. Plus, there is an added level of spice in depicting the stuffy Royal family on screen and the central figure of Queen Elizabeth herself.
Despite her huge profile and fame, the current monarch is in many ways an enigma. She never gives interviews and is cloaked behind a blanket of formality and tradition. The challenge for the filmmakers here was considerable. Not only do they have to second guess private conversations woven together from a variety of on and off the record sources but they have had to create a believable portrayal. On this count they have resoundingly succeeded. In the title role Helen Mirren gives a remarkable performance that manages to capture her voice and look to an uncanny degree.
Beyond the mannerisms and physicality she also manages to show believable raw emotions and thoughts a head of state might feel. It is a fiendishly difficult role but she pulls it off brilliantly. Michael Sheen also manages to carry on from the good work he did in The Deal by fashioning a believable version of Tony Blair. He nails the Labour leader’s serious desire to be all things to all people, allows us to laugh at his holier-than-thou persona and yet still demonstrates his steely convictions that have became more apparent in recent times. In the notable supporting roles James Cromwell is an amusingly gruff Prince Philip whilst in perhaps the most difficult role of Prince Charles, Alex Jennings manages to avoid the caricature so often portrayed in the media, delivering a surprisingly affecting portrait.
If there is a problem with the film, it lies in not in the execution but in how the subject matter reminds you just how things have changed since those months in 1997. The skilful blend of news footage into the narrative is so good that you can’t help reflect at the end how Diana’s death, and the subsequent reaction to it, has paled in comparison to bigger events such as 9/11 and the Iraq War. To be fair, the film is more about the relationship between a modern political leader and an older constitutional figurehead than it is about recent global politics. It is a drama about individuals and their reaction to events, rather than events themselves. In that sense it certainly doesn’t bite off more than it can chew but at the end I was left wanting to see Frears and Peter Morgan tackle Blair’s relationship with Bush. But perhaps that will be their next project.
For now we have The Queen and it is more than enough. On paper it may sound like a dry and cerebral affair but it manages to be a real antidote to the bland costume dramas the British film industry used to churn out with depressing regularity. A consistently absorbing and entertaining film, it not only takes an insightful look at recent British history but also manages to do it in a provocative way. It raises questions about the role of the monarchy in the modern age without ever descending into clumsy preaching and also manages to dryly satirise our rulers whilst acknowledging the emotional difficulties they find themselves in.
The Queen is released in the UK on September 15th and in the US on October 6th in NY & LA
> Official Site for The Queen
> Trailer at for The Queen at Apple Trailers
> IMDb link for The Queen
> IMDb entry for The Deal
> Film critic mmanuel Levy on Helen Mirren’s Oscar chances
> Wikipedia entry for Queen Elizabeth II (an illuminating and interesting article)
> Variety news article last year announcing the film
> Wikipedia entry for the Death of Diana, Princess of Wales