A story of spin
Stephen Frears’ ‘The Queen’
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It's the type of bold mixture we have not seen on a big or small screen since Kennedy Miller's local epic The Dismissal: on the one hand, liberal use of archival news and documentary footage, a torrent of newspaper front pages and headlines; on the other, free licence to fictionalise, to imagine what the most public people in the world said to each other in the privacy of their bedrooms. The subject of Stephen Frears' The Queen is the British royals; more exactly, their eclipse in the days that followed ex-Princess Diana's death in a Paris tunnel. Unable to immediately respond in public - the first impulse of Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and Prince Philip (James Cromwell) is to scoot off to Balmoral Castle and look after Diana's kids - and badly misjudging the mood of the people, the royals find themselves supplanted by an unlikely and earnest hero, the newly elected prime minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen).
One test of a good movie is how it manages to meet and negotiate the prejudices of its audiences. The Queen, beautifully scripted by Peter Morgan, preaches no particular political line and plays to no particular bias. Its satire is democratically spread around, and so is its compassion. It is the finest film about the political process ‘from the inside' since Mike Nichols' underrated Primary Colors. It's the kind of film - old-fashioned in the best sense, and rarely seen today - which keeps approaching its characters from different angles, to show them in a different light. The drama consistently operates according to screenwriting guru Jean-Claude Carrière's principle that every character, no matter how two-dimensional, how stupid or dull or loathsome, must be given a moment in which they suddenly reveal a depth you didn't realise they had. Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), for instance, is for the most part portrayed as a preening, paranoid, rather lonely buffoon (though Camilla is mentioned, she is left out of the on-screen action). But he is still allowed to deliver a fiery, righteous speech to the Queen about the shameful lack of respect accorded to "the mother of the next King".
The many facets of this film are superbly handled. At some moments, it is a tart comedy of manners about a dying class: the Queen, with her small fleet of dogs, her reliance on ritual and distaste for emotional display - the notion that "the nation must be allowed to publicly grieve" prompts only incomprehension in her - and her firm belief in tradition. But in her daily dealings with servants and helpers, we see that she has a common touch after all. And we feel her pain when, in a climactic scene at the gates of Buckingham Palace, she silently reads, amid the profuse bouquets of flowers and sunny drawings, messages saying that the royals "didn't deserve" Diana, and that they have her "blood on their hands".
The other side of the political picture is presented with equal complexity. Blair rises to power as the avatar of a bold new "modernisation", egged on by his wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory). Yet, by degrees, he comes to sympathise not only with the Queen as an ageing individual stuck in her ways, but also with the non-modern values she represents (his sudden fright at the word "revolutionary", uttered by one of his entourage, is a nice touch). Cherie provides a running commentary, offering various interpretations of this shift: perhaps he identifies the Queen with his mother, or is simply following the path of all British prime ministers, eventually seduced by the peculiar appeal of the monarchy.
The actors appearing within such a delicate mosaic have a difficult task: their characters are satirical targets, but they also have to go deep enough to create moments of pathos and empathy. Helen Mirren is the master of this double game: like everyone in the ensemble, she is made to resemble her model closely enough, but that superficial effect of verisimilitude is only the start of her job. In a prologue worthy of the films of François Ozon, the Queen poses for her portrait, her effortless composure speaking volumes about the long years of training, restraint, control; then, as the camera moves in for the close-up that will allow the film's title to appear alongside her face, Mirren diverts her glance and gazes directly at us. It is a look that gives away nothing, yet seems to let us in on a secret.
The director of The Queen, Stephen Frears, regularly mocks auteur theory in film criticism, viewing himself as a no-nonsense professional who alters his style each time out, in the service of the subject or script. This has made for a frustratingly uneven career. But when Frears is in full command of his material, as in Dirty Pretty Things, The Van and Liam, he is an exceptional craftsman. Look at how he brings out the subtle symmetries in the script of The Queen: between, say, the royal advisor Janvrin (Roger Allam) and Blair's speechwriter, Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley). Or how he takes a gag in an early scene - the Blairs' clumsy attempt to not "turn their back" on Her Majesty - and twists it into the most poignant moment of the whole film, when the Queen, alone on a hill, finally releases some pent-up emotion ... but we only view her from the back.
There could, after all, be a hidden, auteur-like continuity underlying Frears' prolific output. As a student, he learnt much from his mentor, Alexander Mackendrick, another very British filmmaker who tested his own limits within the American system. Indeed, it is Mackendrick's hardboiled '50s masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success that is the model for Frears' best films, presenting an intimate chamber drama as also a microcosm of society. In this sense, The Queen allows Frears to revisit, and this time handle better, the subject of his odd American project of the early '90s, Accidental Hero. That film - about a slick, media-savvy phony who steps into the public eye as a hero, easily suppressing the un-telegenic "marginal" who deserves the credit - clocked in as the first satirical critique of the burgeoning era of reality TV. It was also, in its nutty humour, on par with another TV phenomenon that began in those years: The Simpsons, that marvellously spiky cartoon series which nailed the curious and cut-throat rhythm of a media-mad world.
Like the famous episode of The Simpsons which taught us that a certain politician's career was over, on live TV, "before the three-eyed fish had time to hit the ground", The Queen lays out for us, in hectic but painstaking detail, the factors that influence how a media event turns out. Everything in this story depends upon the media, and the fate of the public figures involved is decided on the basis of how well they size up and play, from moment to moment, the public-relations game. When the royals frolic at Balmoral, they come across not just as overly detached and morally suspect but, above all, as fatally uncomprehending of how quickly their reputations are plummeting. While they hide away their newspapers and turn off their TV sets, Blair and his team gobble up the clues to the "public's mind" and set about influencing it.
It is no accident that the film's drama hinges on key phrases - "People's Princess" for Blair; "as a Queen and a grandmother" for Elizabeth - or the staging of "irrational" spectacles, such as flying the flag half-mast over Buckingham Palace, which "the people" demand and to which the royals reluctantly accede. Ultimately, this is a story of spin, the control of public opinion not through spreading disinformation but rather through setting a mood, the most winning emotion. And the sharpness of The Queen is in showing how rapidly and wildly a collective emotion can fluctuate - a large, abstract theme the film makes concrete by expertly manipulating and shifting our sympathies and antipathies, all along the line.