To fully enjoy director Stephen Frears new historical docudrama, The Queen, one must be decidedly British, have an interest in the royals, or love a great actress in a fascinating performance. Through slow and dry at times, The QueenÂ tells the story of what occurred behind-the-scenes in the British royal palaces in August 1997, the week after Princess Diana's death-by-paparazzi with a sense of humor and decorum.Â Though dealing with the subject matter seriously, Frears added just enough irreverence and humor to get the audience to laugh out loud through much of the film.Â Though this story has been told on TV â€“ and is still MFTVÂ fodder - the casting choices here catapult this film into an OscarÂ contender.
Intercut with news footage of Diana, the British mourning Diana, and scenes of her royal funeral, the true majesty here is another brilliant performance by the ever-classy Helen Mirren, who will be one of the top contenders for the Academy award this Oscar season for her performance as Queen Elizabeth.Â To prepare for a roleÂ as the leader of a royal family that, as a child of lefty communists she was taught to loathe (Mirren's words), Helen Mirren spent hours staring at portraits of the Queen she was to play.Â And that time served her well, as her Queen is so close to the real Queen as to be amazingly accurate, down to the small facial movements, pinched, expressionless mouth, out-of-date behavior and ideas, and her ever-present old lady handbag.
Director Stephen Frears has a long list of interesting credits from My Beautiful LaundretteÂ and Prick Up Your EarsÂ (which should have won Oscars for its two leads,Â Gary Oldham and Alfred Molina) to Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, and 2005's joyful elder-rompÂ Mrs. Henderson PresentsÂ (all films you should immediately netflix if you haven't yet seen them).Â Â The only thing typical aboutÂ Frears directorial choices is his penchant for taking chances with unusual scripts focusing on outsider characters.Â And The Queen fits in that mold, as the royal family depicted here is more outsider than any other characters in recent history, save perhaps for the family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre films. What this film almost lovingly â€“ and with humor - shows is how completely out of touch the royals are with the rest of their country.
The script, by screenwriter Peter Morgan, one of the co-writers of another 2006 Oscar contender, The Last King of Scotland, was written using "inside sources" in a period of only three weeks. Research, of course, took longer, but once Morgan had his focus down â€“ that of the differences between new and old â€“ the new typified by Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who had just been chosen as Prime Minister, and the old represented, of course, by the Queen herself, who is focused on her family's royal duty and its legacy, this filmÂ really gels. The juxtaposition of these two pivotal characters provides the audience with an outgoing and engaging Blair to identify with, and a reserved Queen to understand,Â a woman bred from childhood to serve her country, more focused on privacy, decorum, past glories, and a true dislike of Diana, who gave up everything the Queen herself holds dear.
Sheen is fantastic as Blair, and if you shut your eyes you could almost swear it is Blair himself who is up on the screen speaking. But once you open your eyes you will be drawn to Sheen's huge right ear, which is one-third the size of his full head. His right ear is so big, in fact, that not once in the film do we even get a glimpse of his left ear, which, one supposes, has a more modest proportion.Â Close-ups of Sheen begin to get a bit distracting as you might find yourself ruminating on his ears as this reviewer did. Sheen must have excellent hearing.Â This reviewer wonders if Frears next film will star Sheen in My Right Ear.
American James Cromwell (withÂ the excellent and appropriate accent and dour face) was surprisingly chosen to play the Queen's husband, Prince Philip, who is more focused on murdering 14 point stags on the family's Balmoral Castle hunting grounds in Scotland with Diana's two boys to, supposedly, distract them from the constant news stories about Diana.
The behind-the-scenes footage of the royal family is fascinating as we watch them view the outpouring of love focused on "The People's Princess" a famous Blair quote he rode well, and written for him by speechwriter Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley). The Queen is rigidly in line with maintaining a royal distance from everyone around her, it is clear that she has been raised to do so from an early age, and she does not seem to understandÂ how to express any appropriateÂ emotion. At times you will feel sorry for her distraction from real life as she lives in a world of manners and propriety that no longer have much import in the world.Â It is Mirren's performance that takes this film to Oscar heights, otherwise it is a story we have heard before, just not with the humor and pathos brought to it in this outing.
The only question remaining is why does the Queen carry a handbag? With drivers, footmen, aides, and servants galore, why would she need a handbag at all? What could possibly be in it?Â
Digital Dogs rating:Â A-
MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
Running Time:Â 103 minutes
Producers Pathe Pictures, Andy Harries, Tracey Seaward, Scott Rudin, Director Stephen Frear, Screenplay Peter Morgan, Actors Helen Mirren, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings, Michael Sheen, Sylvia Syms
Â Digital Dogs