The Queen, the sublime comedy of (grand) manners directed by Stephen Frears, centers on the face of Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II—a face that barely bestirs itself. That doesn’t mean she’s inexpressive. Shortly after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, as public dismay builds at the lack of a statement from Buckingham Palace, Mirren’s queen watches Diana sniffle through an old TV interview over her treatment at the hands of the unfeeling royals. The queen neither snorts nor sighs: She simply stares at her late daughter-in-law on the screen, her eyes widening ever so slightly. Yet it’s uncanny how many emotions bleed through Mirren’s regal mask: distaste, horror, pity, regret, bewilderment, and perhaps something else—envy. Like her Elizabethan namesake (whom Mirren also impersonated recently, on HBO), Elizabeth II considers it her duty to rise above her private feelings, to function as a symbol for her people. That this Diana person, a member of the royal family, could have allowed herself to be so open, so histrionic, so overflowingly human: To the queen, it is a mystery with no bottom.
What a challenge Frears and the screenwriter Peter Morgan have set for themselves: to dramatize the conflict between a pretty, vulnerable young woman and a frumpy, emotionally stunted monarch—and to turn our normal sympathies topsy-turvy, so that the former is absent while the latter is our damsel in distress. How can they give this stubborn, blinkered, coddled woman, who can’t even grieve like a human being, an ounce of dramatic stature?
The obvious way is by casting Dame Helen, who is peerless when it comes to playing characters trapped in roles to which society has assigned them. In a sort of overture, Elizabeth poses for a portrait while keeping tabs on the election that will sweep Tony Blair into office—Blair the youthful, studiously informal Labour upstart whose wife is a renowned anti-monarchist. Confiding sadly to the artist that she wishes she could just once be joyfully partisan, this plain woman turns toward the camera, raises her eyebrows, and assumes the queenliest of miens as the title—The Queen—fades in majestically. It’s the movie’s only wink at the audience, but it’s hilarious, and it’s enough: It primes you to scrutinize Mirren’s face for signs of tension between the woman and the sovereign. It also primes you to marvel at the will it takes to keep up appearances when virtually everyone on earth thinks you’re both scarily heartless and laughably out of touch.
We all did, of course: We might have been divided on the subject of Diana’s beatitude, but there was no disagreement about the royals’ cluelessness. Much of The Queen has the quality of a disaster film in which idiots ignore the volcano up the road spewing ever-larger gobs of lava. Elizabeth insists that the mourning will be quiet, with dignity, that there will be no public funeral for an ex-royal, that this is a private matter for her family. You say there will be an international outpouring of grief, on an undreamed-of scale? An absurd notion. You say the queen should address the nation, to help her people cope with the loss? The subjects would desire no such thing. After fairly begging Elizabeth to reckon with reality— as well as with the excoriating headlines and widespread calls for an end to the monarchy—Blair (Michael Sheen) gazes heavenward and cries, “Will someone please save these people from themselves?”
If The Queen is the story of Elizabeth and Diana’s disastrous antipathy, it’s also the tale of Liz and Tony’s fortunate symbiosis. Showing the kind of deference to authority that would one day lead him down the garden path with an even more shortsighted (and considerably stupider) world leader, the prime minister behaves with a chivalry that not even he seems fully to comprehend. Sheen is slighter and more chipmunk-like than his real-life model, but it’s hard to imagine a more generous portrait—or a more deliciously impudent turn by Helen McCrory as his wife, Cherie. You love Cherie when she makes an ironic show of backing out of the queen’s drawing room (one must never turn one’s back on Her Majesty), and you love Elizabeth for registering the affront while keeping her smile firmly in place.
It’s hard not to love everyone in this movie except the charmless Prince Philip (James Cromwell), whose exclamations are unfailingly snobbish and dull. Even Charles (Alex Jennings) is a figure more to be pitied than censured. He’s always piping up about changing times and the need to be flexible—and you see him through his mother’s eyes, not so much flexible as boneless. I’ve rarely seen body language more amusing than Jennings’s when he directs his chief of staff to make overtures to Blair behind his mother’s back (“The prince feels that you and he are modern men”); he leans away from the phone as if afraid it will turn into Mummy and whack off his head.
In the hands of another director, The Queen could be an exercise in claustrophobia, like a dinner party with horrible food and worse people. But Frears doesn’t score easy laughs at his characters’ expense. Having made up his mind that he reveres this queen (and this actress), he invests her surroundings with genuine elegance rather than empty ostentation. For all the senseless protocol, Elizabeth behaves toward her army of employees with more grace than the average B-list Hollywood celebrity. And she doesn’t cut a ludicrous figure amid the mighty crags and rolling hills of her family’s 50,000-acre Scottish estate; in that landscape, she knows her place. Given the movie’s cheekiness, Morgan and Frears take a chance by hitting a note of awe— the appearance of a magnificent stag that gazes into her eyes as she struggles with her existential dilemma.
There’s something perverse—delightfully perverse—about a film in which the suspense is in whether a woman can bring herself to make a grudging statement of grief, and when she acquiesces, it’s not exactly a stand-up-and-cheer kind of climax. But it’s a momentous one, because it marks, for Queen Elizabeth II, the passing of a more dignified, more orderly world. It’s akin to Chekhov’s idle rich having to sell off their cherry orchard to commoners, except the story has been updated: The catastrophe is a public-relations one, and what Elizabeth has to sell is her image. She has it coming, though: She was frightful to poor, unhinged Diana, the queen of modernity, of celebrity culture. The Queen is the most reverent irreverent comedy imaginable. Or maybe it’s the most irreverent reverent comedy. Either way, it’s a small masterpiece.
The Queen’s Peter Morgan also wrote the screenplay (with Jeremy Brock) of The Last King of Scotland, the fictional story of a young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) who travels to Uganda to escape an overbearing patriarch and ends up in the hearty embrace of a patriarch who’s even more overbearing … Idi Amin! The movie is one of those morality plays about the dangers of letting yourself be seduced by powerful people, especially when they’re genocidal maniacs, and you can guess where it’s heading when the doctor and Idi’s wife No. 3 (Kerry Washington) begin trading longing looks. But if the story is familiar, the treatment isn’t: The film is phenomenally well directed by Kevin Macdonald and edited by Justine Wright to bring out every bit of scary volatility in the most casual interactions. The charismatic McAvoy finds an ever-shifting blend of opportunism and decency; Simon McBurney is a reptilian marvel as Idi’s English minder; and Gillian Anderson is amazingly vivid as a beaten-down do-gooder. Dwarfing all is Forest Whitaker, who finally gets to seize the space and show us how he can rage. His Amin is the most bloodcurdling kind of actor: a paranoiac with one eye on his audience and the power to give them the hook.
In 1977, Idi Amin famously declared himself “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al-Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” He was deposed in 1979. Other presidents for life were Napoleon Bonaparte (declared in 1802, deposed in 1814) and Sukarno of Indonesia (declared in 1963, deposed in 1965). Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan (declared in 1999) is the only one left, though he’s promised free and fair elections by 2010.
Directed by Stephen Frears. Miramax. PG-13.
The Last King of Scotland
Directed by Kevin MacDonald. Fox Searchlight. R.