Directed by Stephen Frears
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 103 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Spanish
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Release Date: April 24, 2007
Review Date: April 13, 2007
The shocking death of Princess Diana in 1997 is the impetus behind the plot of Stephen Frears’ The Queen. This compelling character study of the second Elizabeth to reign as monarch of Great Britain is a somewhat risky venture as the major characters in the piece are almost all still alive and yet there’s no official way to know exactly how much of this story is actually true. Screenwriter Peter Morgan has done a superb job of giving credence to what could be a wholly fictional story or one that might be uncannily close to the truth.
Some things about the story are undeniably accurate: Tony Blair did win a landslide victory to become Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister only months before Diana’s tragic demise; there was no love lost between the Royal Family and Princess Diana who did succeed in giving the family male heirs before her divorce from Prince Charles; and the Queen did eventually break centuries old protocol in response to overwhelming public outcry over Diana’s sudden passing.
But getting the Queen to come around to accepting that something public needed to be done forms the gist of the story, and it’s quite a fascinating one. Though Prince Charles senses the need to act, neither the queen's husband nor her mother feel the need to acknowledge Diana’s death in any public way, and the queen fully agrees. In fact, for nearly a week, the Royal Family remained secluded at their remote estate at Balmoral refusing to bow to either public or political pressure to make an outward show of grief (other than Charles and his sons, there didn’t seem to be much grief).
But director Frears handles all of the pomp and pageantry well. Having directed lofty aristocrats in Dangerous Liaisons, the Royal Family’s more humble lifestyle seems to have been no problem (and you’ll be surprised to see them driving their own vehicles, tromping around in carpet slippers and old boots, and seeming quite average apart from their vast wealth). He’s equally adept at handling the Blair household with the jaunty Tony and his acerbic wife Cherie reminding us that Frears has triumphed in helming films about every strata of society from the criminal (The Grifters) to the artistic (Prick Up Your Ears).
Much has been written about Helen Mirren’s superb performance as Elizabeth Windsor, and she’s deserving of every accolade she’s received for the film. It’s a quiet, beautifully modulated performance. Her walk through the mountain of flowers at Buckingham Palace while reading messages attached to the bouquets is a master class in fine acting, and she hardly says a word. Equally brilliant is Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, respectful but gently assertive and even slightly cheeky with the queen when necessary. James Cromwell as the irritatingly dense Prince Philip and Sylvia Syms as the twinkly Queen Mother add to the film’s pleasures. Also much appreciated is the calm, reverential performance of Roger Allam as the queen’s private secretary Robin.
The film’s original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is faithfully presented in an accurate anamorphic transfer. Though many scenes are beautifully composed and are spot-on in color registration (particularly flesh tones), neither the film’s smoothness nor sharpness is consistent. Director of photography Affonso Beato shot all of the Blair scenes in 16mm while the Royal Family scenes were done in standard 35mm in order to accentuate their class differences. Combined with grainy video footage culled from broadcast archives, the film seesaws rather disconcertingly in look from moment to moment. Additionally, there are sequences where the image goes soft particularly in long shots and color seems inconsistent for no apparent reason. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is well recorded, but the rears aren’t used very much except to give some body to the music or for a few occasional outdoor sounds. It’s not surprising since this is a film of words and meditation rather than action, but the wonderful score by Alexandre Desplat might have been better served with a more full-bodied treatment through all the available channels. Also offered is a Spanish soundtrack.
Truth be told, the DVD is light on extras. There are two audio commentaries. Director Frears and screenwriter Morgan are the speakers on the first one, but Frears seems grumpy and not especially willing to talk. Morgan does his best to bring up aspects of the production as scenes appear on the screen, but Frears seems more interested in complaining about their low budget than offering great gobs of information to the listener. Much better is the second commentary by historian Robert Lacey who’s written several books on the Royals and who has intimate knowledge on their pomp and protocol. He offers a marvelous mix of informed opinion, gossip, and film analysis making his commentary most definitely the one to seek out.
There is also a nineteen minute featurette on the making of the picture. Frears is more talkative and more cheerful in this feature, but its primary pleasure is seeing and hearing the actors out of character describe their joys and terrors in portraying these real people whose private personas remain mostly unknown to the public and rather hoping they got them right.
There are also the usual Disney previews of upcoming films and DVDs including Déjà Vu, Ratatouille, and Kyle X Y Declassified.
Elizabeth II has led a particularly private life during her many decades as Queen of England, but The Queen does give us a brief opportunity to draw the curtain of secrecy from her domestic life and imagine the frightful moment when she perhaps realized the world had changed and she hadn’t. Outstanding acting and a spare, literate script make The Queen well worth getting to know.