When Princess Diana met her untimely death in Paris in 1997, having divorced the Prince and living a new life with Dodi Fayed, the Royal Family was curiously silent. While Britain and the world mourned openly a woman they had come to embrace even more passionately than the Royals, her surviving former in-laws holed up in Scotland, scandalizing their subjects.
This film dares to try and reach inside the head and heart of Queen Elizabeth II (notably never mentioned by name) during this time. It was a time when her “different than us” qualities could have been broken down to reveal a relatable human woman within, but her response cemented the gap between the monarchy and the people it has represented for centuries.
Dame Helen Mirren is a fantastic choice to play this woman, a queen so unknowable and so removed. Mirren is a fiery, passionate actress, one with a young figure and a younger soul (though well-tempered with gravitas), and a queen herself in the cinema firmament. One would first think of a more chilly portrayal, like one that could have come from Judi Dench or even Maggie Smith (Dames themselves). It’s a tough job to dowdy up this sexy actress, but costumer Consolata Boyle (check out her filmography!) captured the public essence of QEII and bundled Mirren’s fit spryness into a regimented, waddling ruler.
Mirren’s native passion is bottled up into a delicious sort of mortification over the response her subjects (as sniffed, “the people,”) and new Prime Minister Tony Blair demand of her. She seems to radiate power, authority, a sureness of her place in the world that is felt by few in it. In day to day life, the Queen is handled with almost antiquated care: the rituals involved with being in The Presence, the number of handlers she has for what is essentially an idle, figurehead life of dictated condolence letters and advising her Prime Minister. Her existence is so removed from the reality of the world around her, the world who embraced Diana even as she was repelled by her, and Mirren shows us her sense of entitlement and power while never making her appear spoiled or imperious.
I have to admit here that while I was saddened by Diana’s death, I wasn’t one of the keening, devastated masses in protracted mourning as so many understandably were (I’m talking to you, SL-P!). This is not a judgement, just context for my next remark: I was pretty much bawling through a good two-thirds of this movie, both in empathetic response to the national outpouring and in particular over Prince Charles’ (Alex Jennings) reactions to the event.
It was a provocative choice to have no one refer to the Royal Family by their actual names; they were only The Queen or The Prince of Wales, even at home. It further dehumanized them to the outside world, even as the movie imagines what was happening inside Balmoral Castle. To have the Royals sniping cattily about the deceased, misguidedly distract the bereaved children, and to insist that their mourning was genuine, but private, was gripping. It was a fictional account of moments we the public will never be privy to, but an effective and affecting portrayal of an intimate yet remote bubble during that sad time.
Elizabeth’s capitulation (a matter of public record) toward the end of the film is charged with resentment and a gnawing, possibly insecure realization of how her role has changed in the hearts of the people. She is human after all. It’s a fantastic, iconic performance.
MPAA Rating Miramax
Release date 9/30/06
Time in minutes 103
Director Stephen Frears