Monday, March 20, 2023

Oscar Film Journal: The Queen (2006)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!  Still plugging away at past nominees, hoping to cross that halfway mark this year....

Today's entry is the 2006 biographical drama The Queen, starring Helen Mirren in a performance that won her the Oscar, plus Michael Sheen and James Cromwell.  Directed by Stephen Frears and written by The Crown creator Peter Morgan, The Queen takes place mostly over a one-week period in 1997, just after Princess Diana's fatal car crash, and covers what was essentially a power struggle between Britain's long-serving Queen Elizabeth II and its newly elected, optimistic young Prime Minister Tony Blair.  As the country grieves intensely for the beloved ex-Princess (whose relationship with the Royal Family was contentious at best), Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip's apparent aloofness toward the tragedy draws public ire, contrasted with Blair's heartfelt, galvanizing speech dubbing Diana "The People's Princess."  The Queen and the Prime Minister find themselves at odds in dealing with the fallout, Elizabeth clinging to the old, traditional mindset of not publicly showing emotion and keeping the grieving process private and "dignified."  Blair however has his finger on the pulse and correctly determines that the country needs its leaders to show empathy and guide them through this difficult time.  Despite having a very different vision for Britain's leadership, Blair also recognizes that he and his Queen need to remain allies for the good of the nation, privately urging her to join him in comforting her people.  As the out-of-touch Elizabeth and Philip further dig their heels in, their public approval nosedives to the point that one in four Brits supports ending the monarchy altogether.
This film largely has the feel of a stage production, the drama and conflict playing out in offices and sitting rooms, and the central performances are all pretty understated until a crucial scene late in the film.  Mirren fully embodies the Queen's rather icy demeanor, ever holding her cards close to the vest and only allowing herself to feel the loss of her former daughter-in-law when no one else is around.  Sheen is affable and slightly naive as the youthful, energetic Blair, eager to sink his teeth into modernizing the country but intimidated by the Queen and tentative about upsetting the apple cart.  Blair's chief aide and speechwriter revels in the Royals' sinking popularity but Blair himself doesn't want to be responsible for hurting the monarchy, so deep is his respect for Elizabeth.  Both lead performances are quite strong.

Less successful is James Cromwell as the dismissive Prince Philip, not so much through any fault on Cromwell's part.  The role is simply written a little too much as a moustache-twisting bastard; Philip reacts to every public opinion shift like an annoyed parent dealing with a child's tantrum.  While I don't doubt the royal couple had trouble adjusting their relationship to the public in the late 90s, Philip as written seems a bit of an obligatory villain.

That said, The Queen is a fairly captivating, small-scope political drama that gives us a glimpse into the power dynamics between Britain's antiquated monarchy and its democratic leadership, bolstered by an Oscar-winning lead performance.  It seems to stake a position on the idea of inherited power but wisely doesn't beat us over the head with it, focusing instead on the complex and delicate balance between old-world and modern politics.

I give the film *** out of ****.

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