September, 1997. In the wake of the death of the Princess Of Wales in a Paris car crash, public opinion turns against the royal family.
Stephen Frears’ latest is essentially a sequel to The Deal, the TV play about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown which Frears directed from another Peter Morgan script. Michael Sheen gives another uncanny, insightful performance as a younger, more with-it Tony Blair than the embattled character we see these days. He is matched by an equally remarkable turn from Dame Helen Mirren, who turns an icon familiar from postage stamps and Christmas broadcasts into an actual human being in one of the most difficult roles of her career.
While Princess Diana, as with Joseph McCarthy in Good Night, And Good Luck, is played by artfully-selected news snippets, her presence permeates the film. Towards the end, as the protocol of centuries has been sundered by a vast outpouring of public pressure, a slight slo-mo shot of the princess is a dead ringer for that final smile-to-camera of Damien in The Omen. It makes this seem oddly like a ghost story in which the presence of the blessed dead lingers on Earth, somehow managing to bring out the best and the worst in everyone.
Whole other films could be made about these events, concerning the bizarre Al-Fayed family, the mysterious circumstances of the Paris car crash or the eternally squirming press. The Queen, however, imposes dramatic shape by playing the tragedy as a backdrop to a peculiar love story. Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory) comments that all Labour prime ministers “go ga-ga” over the Queen, and sure enough, the film’s spine has Sheen’s sparkle-eyed Blair falling under the spell of Mirren’s war-forged, repressed-but-feeling, quietly outraged monarch.
The easy route would be to play this all as satire, and there are funny moments from James Cromwell as a splenetic Duke Of Edinburgh, Sylvia Syms as a miffed Queen Mum and Tim McMullan as the gleefully-spinning Alastair Campbell, though some real-life vox pops from famous and ordinary people are just as cringe-inducing or tasteless as the scripted barbs. But this is a surprisingly serious, affecting picture about folks you thought you were past caring about. One stand-out scene, with the beleaguered Queen (“I was a mechanic during the war”) marooned in the wilds by a broken axle and confronting a similarly-harassed stag, is liable to be a much-excerpted awards ceremony clip. You’re left with the suspicion that if Helen Mirren were Queen, Britain wouldn’t be a democracy.
Fascinating, funny, wicked and to the point, this is an excellent film about a week every Briton over the age of 15 will remember vividly.