The fierce look on Helen Mirren’s face during the compelling opening sequence of Stephen Frears’ The Queen gives nothing but chills. Not only does this five-second scene, in all its greatness, spread a rather uncomfortable feeling, but it also sets the predominant tone for the whole movie and indicates that what is to follow must have been crafted with sheer perfection.
Written by Peter Morgan, whose screenplay for The Last King of Scotland was warmly received by critics, The Queen chronicles the events following the tragic death of Princess Diana on August 31, 1997. The film revolves mainly around the conflict between Queen Elizabeth II (played with undeniable grandeur by Helen Mirren), who refuses to make a public statement about the terrible events and thus sparked enormous criticism among her people, and Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who largely disagrees with her handling of the situation. The death of Diana, who Blair appropriately referred to as “the people’s princess,” caused a lot of sorrow among the British people, but instead of receiving support from the royal family, all they got was the Queen’s cold shoulder.
Previous hits such as Dangerous Liaisons, Liam and Dirty Pretty Things show beyond doubt that Stephen Frears is one of the finest directors of our time. No matter what thematic he picks up or idea he devises, Frears always hits the right notes by putting all the necessary emphasis on strong character development and compelling, elaborate storytelling. That’s also exactly the formula he applies in The Queen, a movie so complete and subtle, it will leave you spellbound. Where many other movies of a similar genre raise questions and fail to answer them in depth, The Queen offers a profound look into the souls of the main characters and gloriously succeeds in exploring each one’s decisions and attitudes.
A convinced conservative who no longer considered Diana as “a member of the royal family,” Elizabeth II prefers to keep her death a private matter and feels no need to speak out in public. The press and the people of Britain see things differently, and gradually lose their belief in the monarchy. In all this turmoil, Tony Blair is the one trying to bring the Queen back to London and reconnect with the Britons. Director Stephen Frears does an excellent job in covering the impact of this one-week controversy, and never runs the risk of taking sides. The real strength of the movie originates in the conflict between Diana and Elizabeth II, and then later switches over to her rather pessimistic view of Tony Blair.
The Queen comprises an array of powerful scenes, and Frears maintains the incredible ability to keep his viewers on the edge of their seat. The sporadic use of real archived footage of Diana and people mourning outside Buckingham Palace increases the dramatic element and gives the movie a sense of reality that is at once incredibly authentic and hard to digest. Scenes such as the reenactment of the moments leading up to the deadly car crash are particularly fascinating. Praised by critics around the world, the movie was a gigantic success in the U.K., especially because it allowed the people to step beyond the thick walls of Buckingham Palace. Screenwriter Peter Morgan and Stephen Frears were continually accompanied by a certified historian, which undoubtedly boosts the credibility of the film as a whole.
The greatest asset of The Queen is the Queen herself, played with utter passion and commitment by Helen Mirren, whose performance won her numerous prizes, including a merited Oscar for Best Actress in a leading role. Mirren truly is the queen of this movie, stealing every single scene she appears in and even overshadowing those she is only mentioned in. Not only does she look like the real Elizabeth II, but she also articulates like her. Mirren is the best, and, in my opinion, only choice for this remarkably complex role. Michael Sheen stars as Tony Blair, and he too delivers a wonderful performance. It is obvious that the cast members in The Queen feel quite comfortable around each other, which makes it easier for then to focus on their characters and offer the spectators the best in professional big screen acting. Casting agent Leo Davis be praised.
Ultimately, The Queen has secured itself a spot at to the top of the list of last year’s best films, both offering mesmerizing performances and a superb script. Alexandre Desplat’s spicy score and Affonso Beato’s gorgeous photography level the movie to a state of perfection, which can hardly be topped. Crafted by top-notch filmmakers and acclaimed perfectionists, The Queen is a royal experience and occupant of the throne of flawless British cinema.
With close to fifty trophies from worldwide film festivals and admired award ceremonies, The Queen is an absolute must see on DVD, regardless of the quality of its bonus material. Sure, a packed special features section is always a wonderful treat for movie fans, but every now and then, you stumble across a disc on which quality reigns over quantity. Such is the case for The Queen.
The only bonus feature besides two commentaries is an exciting three-part, 20-minute “Making of,” which offers its viewers useful information about the main characters, the design of the movie and the overall structure of the plot. In the first part, cast members explain in detail how they brought their characters to life in front of the camera, before moving on to discuss the limitations to their impersonations. Helen Mirren is the most interesting to listen to, as she talks about the techniques she applied to trim her nervousness in playing the complex role of Elizabeth II. The segment about the design of the film focuses on the setup of locations and choice of costumes, and features some very insightful comments by production designer Alan MacDonald and costume designer Consolata Boyle. Not much else about the production of the film is said, but the making of is instructive enough to look at, especially because it lets cast and crew talk about what makes The Queen so extraordinary.
The disc also includes two feature-length commentaries - one with director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan, and one with British historian and royal expert Robert Lacey. The former is certainly not the best. Frears and Morgan discuss some of the film’s scenes in high detail while skipping others, mostly with a satirical tone and too many long pauses. The beginning of the commentary is also quite distracting as you can clearly hear Frears chewing in the background. You would expect a more subtle discussion from a director, but instead, his input is by no means informative.
The second commentary, on the other hand, is a completely different experience, and certainly one not to miss. British historian Robert Lacey, who was also Frears’ historical consultant on the film, dives right into the action and doesn’t stop talking until the end credits sort of force him to. He talks about politics in the U.K. in general, and also mentions the contrast between the royal family and the Blairs, including their visions and political backgrounds. Furthermore, his insight also includes the meaning of the Queen’s clothes, the different locations in the movie, and the characters around her. His commentary definitely offers everything you ever wanted to know about the monarchy, and much more. Lacey is interesting and captivating, and his words are historically instructive.
The Queen DVD comprises a few features only, but Lacey’s contribution and the “Making of” are of substantial value. And with the movie itself being one of last year’s best, this disc must at any cost have a royal spot in every movie lover’s DVD collection. Long live The Queen!