Americans first heard of Princess Diana's death in 1997 at the start of a long holiday weekend. For days afterward, both local and national newspapers ran photos of the mushrooming memorials of flowers, written sentiments and candles outside the gates of Kensington Palace and Balmoral. Five days after Diana died, Queen Elizabeth II visited those memorials, and broke with tradition to give a brief and restrained eulogy on British TV. If we are to believe director Stephen Frears' version of the events, in his audacious new narrative feature The Queen, Diana's death led to a crisis in the British monarchy, and a period of self-examination for its famously dutiful queen.
At the New York Film Festival press conference, Helen Mirren, who plays the queen, admitted to growing up in a staunchly anti-monarchist family, but after making The Queen, she says, "I ended up loving her!" That may not be precisely what Frears and his screenwriter, Peter Morgan, intended, but it's not far off. Upon hearing of the princess' death, their Queen Elizabeth immediately reconstructs the aegis of monarchy: She protects the young princes, who are spending the summer with her at Balmoral, by removing their TV set, sparing them the gossip about their mother. Then, with imperial insularity, the queen dismisses the pleas of her spineless heir apparent-Prince Charles' insipid argument is for Diana's status as the "mother of the future king of England"-and declares that the funeral of the former HRH is a Spencer family affair. While the media frenzy takes hold, the Windsors carry on as usual. Soon, though, the queen's equanimity is tested by her new prime minister: Blair presses her into understanding the implications of her resounding silence and, unwittingly, acts as the catalyst for her transformation.
For his research, Morgan rented a cottage on the grounds at Balmoral, which apparently any commoner can do. He talked to the estate's stable boys, kitchen maids, and everyone else who could tell him anything about the royal family. Helen Mirren (now a Dame, the female equivalent for the rank of knighthood) watched videos of the queen and studied with a voice coach to perfect the monarch's aristocratic accent. James Cromwell, the only American in the cast, had actually met Prince Philip, the queen's husband, and so drew on his memory of the prince's speech and demeanor. In 2003, Frears and Morgan collaborated on The Deal, a British TV movie which starred Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, and which is also a drama based on real events. Sheen, who bears a striking resemblance to a much younger Blair, reprises his character in The Queen. With the exception of Cromwell, the cast is excellent. Already there are whispers about Helen Mirren being nominated for an Oscar.
Frears' mentor was Czech director/producer Karel Reisz, who is best-known here for The French Lieutenant's Woman. Like Reisz, Frears is a craftsman. He's a master at creating a cinematic style that perfectly reflects the subject of the screenplay. That talent is evident in The Queen, where the aloofness of the British monarchy is echoed in the attenuated quality of the mise-en-scène-even the medium shots are tight, and it is difficult to remember any long shots at all, except at Balmoral. There, on a verdant fell, the queen sees the regal fourteen-point stag Prince Philip is "stalking." Later, when she hears that the magnificent creature has been shot, she visits a nearby estate to inspect the carcass. First she gazes at the beheaded body of the beast strung up for bloodletting, and then at the noble head, and she is naturally led to ruminate on the fleeting nature of all things, even queens. It's a brilliant metaphor for her catharsis, and during the press conference in New York, Morgan intimated that the sequence was Frears' invention.
The fascination The Queen holds for American audiences is plain: Our revolt over 200 years ago seems not to have relieved us of our emotional bond with the royal family. We do not feel the ambivalence, or the regicidal impulses, of the British people toward their monarchy as intensely as they do, perhaps because we lack the history of it. We loved Princess Diana for her modernity, but even more because her purity was so anachronistic. With a kind of historical collective memory, Americans perceived more clearly the fragility of her innocence. If The Queen treats its subject kindly, it is because it suggests that Queen Elizabeth II's blindness toward the "people's princess" stemmed not from a dislike of Diana, but from her own early loss of innocence-she was a queen at 25-and her lifelong denial of that loss in the name of duty.