Docu-dramas don't usually become frontline movies, and true to form "The Queen" is only available in limited release in most places in America. It is a great pity for this is a wonderfully crafted tale centered around the crisis the monarchy faced due to it truculant and inadequate response to the death of Diana. The movie has an admirably clear focus on one slice of time in 1997 from just before until, at the very end of the movie several months after the death and funeral of Diana. Splicing together actual footage from the period with first rate acting, especially by Helen Mirren who should certainly be crowned queen of the Oscars for this performance, this movie tells a story and tells it well. It is a story about how time had almost passed the British monoarchy by, when it came to judging the importance of public opinion, especially in a quasi-democracy. The movie also proves to be an excellent civics lesson for those who don't understand that the United Kingdom is not the same sort of democracy as we are-- they don't even have a Constitution like ours. Indeed, one could say they are caught between their rich past and the need for modernization, with Tony Blair being seen as a sensible voice for modernization yet one that has continued to have great respect for the monarchy and its traditions.
How then does one prod a queen into action? How does one make a queen see that times have changed and she needs to make a public response to Diana's tragic death? The inner workings of Downing Street and even more the inner life of Buckingham Palace and Balmoral are put on display here for all to see, and it is a very revealing tale indeed. The royals, living in isolation, being the guardians of ye olde monarchial tradition, think that public displays of emotion are gauche and inappropriate for a royal figure. They have been taught to be Stoic, and to let their own personal feelings be a private matter. They desire to live and grieve privately. They had not counted on a huge public outpouring of love and grief for Diana. Indeed, they had wanted only a private funeral with no cameras watching, as had the Spencers originally, Diana's family.
I must admit that neither had I. Diana died at almost exactly the same time as Mother Teresa, and I found it very odd that someone who devouted her whole life to charitable service could be eclipsed in the world imagination by a party girl who also did charitable work off and on for a few short years, all the while mimicking her unfaithful husband by being likewise unfaithful, finally precipitating divorce outright. Of course most public sentiment was with Diana. She was seen as one who was driven to bad behavior by the chilly reception she received within the royal circle. The Queen and the royal family, with the exception of Charles, are portrayed
as having been mightily annoyed by Diana's bad behavior and not surprisingly rather aloof when it came to grieving.
Throughout this movie I caught myself wondering what the real Queen would think of this film if she saw it. It is clear that Helen Mirren embodies what we can observe from the outside of what the Queen is like, right down to her small mannerisms and of course her royal arrogance. She really believes in the divine right of monarchs. What I could have wished for in this movie is a little less about being on holiday in Balmoral (where deer stalking is the big attraction) and a little more about the Queen's own spiritual and ethical life and convictions. She is after all not merely the defender of the monarchy but the defender of the faith. Charles in this movie is portrayed as someone who genuinely did love Diana, appreciated her love for and devotion to her children, but still has a hard time standing up to his mother when it comes to things like flying on a royal plane to be at the hospital where Diana died in Paris. His character is underdeveloped in this movie and it is a pity.
The core of the movie focuses on the relationship between Tony Blair, who has to serve as the gentle but persistent catalyst, and the Queen herself. All the other figures in the movie are peripheral to this central focus, and this allows for great clarity. What will the Queen finally decide? Will she indeed allow the flag to fly at half-mast over Buckingham palace, which had not even happened when her father died? Would she come down to London from Balmoral and make a public statement? Would she meet the people who were putting thousands of bouquets of flowers at the doorstep of Buckingham palace? Most of all, would she change, a little and 'modernize'?
I will not spoil the movie for you, which is less than two hours in length. I will only say, you will never see a more convincing acting job than Helen Mirren does in this film, and she deserves every award she wins for this performance. This by itself makes the movie worth watching. But we also have here a cautionary tale that raises the deeper question--- What is the cost of modernization on our cherished traditions, including our religious ones? Of course I could mention Christians and churches who are praying fervently that next year will be 1954 all over again, but it is so not happening. Culture and civilization is a living thing that is always in the process of change. So in this movie we are not only asked to ponder whether we want to say "God save the Queen", but whether indeed God at times must save the Queen from herself and her traditional instincts.