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#37. The Queen - Review

The Queen bannerFilmmakers aspiring to recreate moments of recent history are forced to walk a tightrope of resolute adjudication. The artist must constantly choose between historical accuracy, artistic license, and what is perhaps most tempting and at the same time deceitful, public assumption. For director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan, their 2006 film The Queen chronicles the seven-days in the life of Queen Elizabeth II and newly-elected Prime Minister Tony Blair following the 1997 death of former Princess of Wales Diana Spencer. This is a story of the many considerations a 20th century queen must always appraise; be it socio-political, cultural, personal, or the long-established customs that come with being a monarch. However, is a feature length film, written and directed by men with expected bias and partisanship, really the most preferred method of conveyance? Impartiality cannot be expected, even when sharing the responsibility of portraying the Queen.

The Queen posterAided by news footage and personal accounts of the recent tragedy, Frears and Morgan faced the formidable task of representing the Queen of England, perhaps the most famous and at the same time unrevealed woman in the world, in a believable and insightful light. To put the gravity of this duty in context, Theodore Harvey in his review of the film said, “ Queen Elizabeth II, the second longest serving head of state in the world and certainly the world’s most famous monarch, is one of the great figures of our time. Only a minority of people now living can remember a time when she was not reigning.” (Harvey, 2006) And yet, the 80-year-old matriarch is also an enigma. She hides whatever personal characteristics she may have under a classical, albeit somewhat frumpy demeanor, never granting a public interview and forcing her subjects to speculate as to who the woman under the crown truly is.

There is early footage of the young princess in the documentary Queen Elizabeth: The Reluctant Monarch. Here we are granted rare access to life in Buckingham Palace, watching Elizabeth at first dote over her father and as she got older the handsome Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Once we are introduced to the Helen Mirren in The Queen, it is always on the back of one’s mind that her portrayal is more of a guess than anything resembling historical accuracy.

The death of Princess Diana, the “people’s princess” along with the rise of Tony Blair and his masterful reading of her tragic end, plays brilliantly when contrasted with Elizabeth’s struggle to remain in touch with her subjects. “…Not only won’t those fogies (Queen Elizabeth II and Philip) make concessions to time-honored traditions on behalf of Diana – who in life caused them nothing but trouble – they seem genuinely confounded as to why they should.” (Stewart, 2007) This struggle is illustrated elegantly throughout the film, beautifully blending conjecture with common-sense suppositions and archived news footage. Frears and Morgan understand how easily this project could fail if the not only the portrayals of the main characters, but the themes as well do not convince.  “The Queen is as director Frears describes it, un-sensational. It’s really a character study of a long-popular monarch at a loss when a largely media-driven event, rightly or wrongly, becomes all-consuming throughout much of the world.” (Galbraith IV, 2007)

This subtle approach lends itself to the nature of adapting a very current event. The Queen’s un-sensational manner invites those that are still emotionally invested to let their guard down and enjoy the storytelling for what it is, drama. There are no grandiose brush strokes of hypothetical presumptions, nothing that should insult any of those involved, which it must be reminded when dealing with contemporary history are all mostly still alive. Only time will tell if Frear’s film is genuine cinematic history or sincere speculation, but no matter The Queen’s accuracy, the power of this often tragic tale is ripe for the medium, and I for one am grateful the director and screenwriter Peter Morgan had the boldness to even dream of such intentions.  

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