Princess Diana’s death in 1997 was more than the loss of the paparazzi’s favorite target; it signaled a major shift in Great Britain’s conception of itself. As the British people had clung to the royal family — now utterly powerless and almost laughably insignificant — as a quaint relic of a far nobler past, it had also embraced the rebellious, independent Diana; for she represented a future of hope and possibility, rather than mindless ritual and the mere shadows of power. Most Britons retained a fondness for the royals (even at their lowest ebb, a full ¾ of the population wanted to preserve the monarchy), but they seemed to want a more modern incarnation; symbols of dignity and pageantry, yes, but also more human, as if such a thing could be had when, at bottom, the family was little more than the country’s most notorious welfare recipients. Apparently, they were to be more than rotting old bones hauled out for endless ceremonies and public gatherings; they must “walk among the people” and damn it all, cry and shout and mourn like the rest of us. They were to be descendants of a rich bloodline, inheritors of a great, unparalleled kingdom, but the days when they could retreat to grand estates were apparently over. Speak to us, they cried, not above our frumpier, more common heads.
It is this striking contradiction — maintaining the trappings of tradition while reinventing them as decidedly more modern — that embodies Stephen Frears’ grand new film, The Queen; a movie that could have easily been dismissed as tabloid fodder and yet another dig at Diana’s bones, yet manages to consider the very nature of power itself, and whether or not illusion has any business competing with a less flattering reality. Queen Elizabeth II (surefire Oscar nominee Helen Mirren) is the representative of the past in question; a Britain that has, with the election of the young, dynamic Tony Blair (played with gusto by Michael Sheen) seemed to dismiss the very idea of tradition. Blair speaks to a necessary change; a fresh perspective that dispenses all formality (Number 10 is awash in first names) in favor of optimism, rigor, and the rejection of the status quo (consider that Blair followed reactionary fossils like John Major and Margaret Thatcher). He doesn’t object to the monarchy himself, but his wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) is quite open about her contempt, and her voice is a constant reminder to the prime minister that old habits, while dying hard, must also be treated as constraints on the British soul. Until the Queen and her bizarre, isolated family are stripped of their titles and forced to secure real employment for the first time in centuries, Britain will never fully modernize. She’s right, of course, though not necessarily the most practical.
Fortunately, The Queen, while having sympathies for Mrs. Blair and the new England, refuses to reduce Elizabeth to a cruel caricature. She’s out of touch, slavishly formal, and the ultimate anachronism, but she’s never pathetic. That would be too easy. Instead, she’s a fully developed character who quite understandably believes that she represents the best of her people. Sure, she appeals to God for her birthright, and almost certainly retains a smug sense of superiority (how many of you can trace your family tree to Queen Victoria and beyond?), but what other choice did she ever really have? And in many ways, she gave away the very idea of self to perform a public duty. Throughout the years, the British people had always looked to the crown for inspiration, guidance, and clear, moral authority. Why would she ever believe that the people had changed their minds? In her own way, she saw it all too clearly: if she stumbled, or displayed weakness, or considered revelations and humiliations as part of her daily life, then the very façade of empire would crack and crumble, reducing a once proud nation to ashes. Outrageous and self-important, without question, but what alternative is there? As it was, so shall it be; the very essence of conservatism. And she’s hardly alone on that score. For years in Great Britain, it was official policy.
The movie considers several days following Diana’s sudden death in Paris, and the public outcry that followed after Elizabeth refused to utter a single word in public. Her attitude towards the late princess was public knowledge, but at this time, with a nation in mourning, personal animosities were expected to yield to wisdom and human feeling. Here, though, is where I felt empathy with the monarch, as I wondered what it was “the people” actually wanted. If you’ve accepted that the Queen is indeed a symbol — and a proud one at that, even if keeping her in luxury costs a fortune of the taxpayer’s money — why must she step down from the throne and gnash her teeth with the rabble? The very definition of a royal figure is to remain above the fray; impervious to style, trends, and the heated passions of the moment, is it not? Why was it so bloody important that this woman, who was believed to be irrelevant anyway, to connect with the nation by shedding a tear or two? If her relationship with Diana was strained, if not hostile, while she lived, why must she peddle falsehoods once she’s dead and gone? Brits tried to have it all with their Queen, and almost seemed to use the failed response as a pretext for attacking a woman that dared oppose the beloved Diana, arguably the most famous person in the world at the time. And if “the people” push anything, it is that fame connotes inherent value.
Even though the Queen’s husband, Philip (James Cromwell), is portrayed (accurately, I’m sure) as a grouchy, reactionary moron, he does utter the film’s most challenging line: “Look at them, crying for a woman they didn’t even know.” What does it say about a nation when the death of a pampered, heinously wealthy woman — one who spent her waking hours boating, sunbathing, skiing, and attending exotic balls and galas — literally brings everything to a halt? Few figures anywhere in the world could elicit such a response, so why Diana? Was it because she dared challenge the established order? Most of us will never understand, so what might that say about the ability of Elizabeth herself to put things in perspective? She might have been jealous that so much love had been extended to a woman now expelled from the royal line, but more than that, she was likely experiencing a rare moment of doubt concerning the people to which she felt so devoted. Throughout, she seems committed to their good sense and sound instincts, but deep in her heart, she might have felt the first twinge of utter confusion. Is that what they want? Had England endured bloodshed, civil war, the Blitz, and economic strife for the right to turn away from its heritage and embrace this mere girl? As much as it’s the perceived loss of her subjects, it’s the eradication of a carefully constructed identity. For perhaps the first time in her life, she felt naked and alone.
As much as this is the Queen’s film, Tony Blair stands out as the guardian of compromise and a new day to come. In addition to the fine performance by Sheen, it is both sad and comical that the real head of government feels so obligated to pamper and soothe the very woman who is now so out of place. He’s on the phone at all hours, pleading his case to the monarch that unless she demonstrates more sensitivity and grief, the nation’s affection is bound to be lost forever. He’s the realist in the matter (he represents a different course, but he has enough sense to placate the symbolic head of state), even though we get a good sense of the man who would prove to be such a weasel concerning Iraq. Above all, Blair’s a glad-hander; a toothy man for all seasons who would disappoint his supporters even more deeply than had Elizabeth. Still, his diplomacy proves infectious, and for a time it seems as if he can do no wrong. How appropriate, then, that the script include a scene between Blair and the Queen where she reminds him that eventually, the people will turn on him as well. And so they have.
For that is the impossibility of power; not only is all glory fleeting, but the demands themselves overlap and confuse. We want emotional frankness and vulnerability, but also a steadfast, almost robotic resolve. We crave decency and compassion, yet dismiss both as weakness in the face of global threats. We demand the truth, yet howl for blood upon its release. All elected leaders face these competing voices and beliefs, but it becomes doubly infuriating for the unelected one who sits apart; the ever-present, yet fixed and unevolving reminder of a nation’s contradictions. If she becomes like us, she is no longer who she has been bred to be, and if she stands apart, she cannot lead with any genuine authority. She has nowhere to go, and even when she defers to Blair’s demands and does the right thing, she is mocked for shameless insincerity. She cannot win; it’s a rigged game. But surprisingly enough, I’m with her at this most trying moment. Despite it all, and in defiance of all logic, she’s most herself. She may be little more than a statue — an inert, unimportant slab of marble best left in a museum — but she is wholly incapable of violating her instincts. And if the tears won’t come, she won’t force them. She is, in a sense, the anti-politician. In a nation that cried too easily in those days, it’s practically heroic. More than that, it’s regal.