Yes, folks. Even film critics can make mistakes.
Two years ago, Hollywood released a movie called “The Queen” which was promoted as the inside story about the royal reaction to the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Quite frankly, I had no interest in royal celebrity exploitation. Several years back, I chanced upon a made-for-TV movie about the life of Diana, while channel surfing one night, and watched it for about ten minutes before I lost all interest. As an American, whose ideological ancestors refuted the concept of monarchy more than two centuries ago, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. And so, with limited time to watch the 600 movies Hollywood puts out every year, I passed on “The Queen.”
However, when it got such high critical acclaim and won all those awards, I acquiesced and put it on the bottom of my Netflix queue. It took two years before it rose to the top and I finally got to watch it the other day. That was when I realized I had made a serious mistake.
For the movie isn’t about the death of Diana at all. Okay, yeah, on the surface it is, because, except for the opening and closing sequences, it takes place during the week between Diana’s death in a car accident in Paris and her funeral in London. But what the movie is really about is two completely opposite and contradictory forms of government which coexist simultaneously in the UK. One is the democratically-elected government headed by the newly-sworn in Prime Minster, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), and the other is the monarchy which claims to derive its power through the grace of God, transferred by inheritance and embodied in Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren). In the wake of this sudden and unexpected tragedy, some rather interesting political and cultural issues come to a head as the two branches of government and their respective cultures and classes clash over styles of leadership and the proper way to publicly express grief.
Some cultures—and apparently the British upper crust is among them—deal with death by pretending it hasn’t happened. They insist on keeping a stiff upper lip, show no public sorrow or any emotion, and try to go on with life as if nothing unusual has happened. This is how the royal family responds to Diana’s death. In fact, one of the most bizarre things that the family does (at least according to the film—I have no idea if this is historically accurate) is send the two young boys, William and Harry, on a hunting expedition to take their mind off the fact that their mother has just died.
On top of it, royal protocol further gets in the way of the royal family’s public mourning. For one example, there is the issue of the flag flying over Buckingham Palace. The flag only flies when the Queen is in residence; since the Queen is away at her summer retreat in Scotland (the privately owned Balmoral estate), no flag flies over Buckingham Palace. Yet the people start to demand that a flag be flown at half-mast in honor of Diana. Although the royals rightly point out that the flag has never been flown at half mast, not even for the death of a monarch, let alone a former princess, it becomes obvious to some, most notably Blair, that an exception to protocol is called for in this case.
At least in the movie, Blair emerges as the real hero. In contrast to the Queen, Blair addresses the people, wearing his heart on his sleeve, doing his best to lead his country through this time of national mourning. As a democratically-elected politician whose career depends upon having his finger on the pulse of the people, he has a much clearer idea of the mood of the populace and the shifting political winds. The Queen, who believes that her power comes from God, takes far less interest in the mood of the people. She cannot understand their grief nor can she grasp the growing anti-monarchal sentiment as the public increasingly view her as cold to the death of her former daughter-in-law. According to one poll, 25% of the British people favored the abolition of the crown that week, the highest it had ever been.
The film focuses on these two people—the Queen and the Prime Minister—and their two totally different backgrounds and environments. As heads of their respective ideologically-contradictive governments, they are political enemies, and yet they both come to realize that they need each other for their political survival. Blair’s advisors—and also his anti-monarchist wife—urge him to give the royals enough rope to hang themselves; instead he offers them his best advice on how to save themselves from increasingly worsening public opinion.
The acting, of course, is outstanding. Helen Mirren won the Academy Award for Best Actress that year—enough said. Michael Sheen is excellent as Blair. James Cromwell as Prince Philip and Roger Allam as the Queen’s advisor are both great in their supporting roles. The sweeping cinematography of the Scottish Balmoral estate is awe inspiring. And director Stephen Frears brings everything together nicely.
But what’s most important for me is the issues brought out by the screenplay. When it’s over, you’ll find yourself asking what good does it do to have monarchies today and do they help or hurt democratically-elected governments? The death of Diana was not political, but the ensuing behind-the-scenes crisis certainly was. It tested not only the newly sworn in Prime Minster but the long-established monarchy which misjudged the situation.
So contrary to what I was originally led to believe, “The Queen” is not at all a film about gawking at royal celebrities having a bad day; rather it is about the coexistence of two ideologically opposed forms of government, their respective political and social cultures, and the tensions between them which came to a head by the sudden and unexpected death of Diana.
I made a mistake by not watching this movie two years ago, and I regret it. That should teach me for paying attention to television commercials.