As we dwell in the post-September 11 world, it seems so long ago and of a different age when in summer 1997 Princess Diana met her untimely end in Paris. This movie brings us back to the dawn of Tony Blair's succession as Labor's Prime Minister with all of the richness and tapestry of the English monarchy.
The film opens with Blair's necessary visit to become head of “her majesty's” government, and what seem to be quaint traditions of the constitutional monarchy.
So why are we Americans even interested, nay captivated, by this movie? Well, it is spectacularly sketched and briskly edited as what it is to be an insider at Buckingham Palace and Balmoral, and the tendentious relations between a bucko-new, shiny-faced prime minister, and a solemn and serious monarch having survived an “annus horribilis” with royal divorces and tabloid exposures.
Americans love the English monarchy more than the British do, who have to pay for it. Now we all can feel that we know what it is like to sit and how to behave in the Queen's drawing room. This clearly is a tribute to both Peter Morgan's script and the set designers. Mr. Morgan previously penned the story of another leader brought to the screen, The Last King of Scotland.
The role of Elizabeth II, as played perfectly by Helen Mirren, captures what we think the reigning monarch to be like—she gives full faith and credit to our preconceived notions, and carries the character in the drawing room as well as the craggy hills and dales surrounding Balmoral Castle.
She is barely patient with the too buoyant Blair (Michael Sheen), flush with the fresh victory. Despite serious anti-monarchy sentiments, Cherie Blair docilely waits outside the receiving room as he is informed that: “You are my tenth Prime Minister Mr. Blair, and the first was Winston Churchill, who sat right where you are.”
I saw the boyish Blair transmogrified into the jowly, plump bull-dog whose passionate speeches sounded victory during World War II when Elizabeth's father reigned—quite a contrast! And the contrast between the youthful Blair and the stodgy Thatcher, more a contemporary of the Queen, strikes an equally odd note.
Sheen captures the youth and vitality of the early Blair, and Cherie is a bit too modern and bright. But the posing and make-believe civility that is waged amongst them makes for great theater. This is indeed all preamble to the main show, which is the sudden tragic death of Princess Diana
It is indeed the occasion of Diana's death that brings the forces to life that animate this film. Alex Jennings plays Prince Charles, a contemporary of mine, who always seems uncomfortable in his own skin.
In the uncertain hours after the crash, the hasty dispatches, and then the final dreadful news, he comes as a supplicant to his mother begging for use of the royal aircraft. She's concerned with appearances and “just the waste that they always charge us with,” and he is dispatched to find a commercial flight. I was incredulous—it seems almost absurd.
It generates sympathy for the seemingly hapless Prince, and leaves one astounded at the icy tones and cold visions of Elizabeth. The lines are drawn that the royals want to seal this off as a “private matter,” but the public, and Blair himself, sees the moment as defining.
The Prince of Wales tries to “coalition” with Blair, as Prince Philip (James Cromwell) fumingly fizzles as an arch supporter of the Queen, with an absolute tin ear to public sentiment. The Blair administration crafts the term “the People's Princess.” Both the Morgan script and the Frear's directorial hand are masterful at the vignettes to bring the boiling conflicts between the traditionalist Queen, who is out of step with her people and insulated from recognizing it, and the opportunistic Blair. He makes publicity points but at the same time sees that the monarchy's very value was at stake, and provides very needed and belatedly accepted advice as to how to steer the shoals of torrents of wailing currents of sadness from the bewildered public.
The Queen retreats to tradition and protocol; Blair senses the time to be audacious and conspires with the public in wailing agony for the dead princess. There are scenes of the vibrant Diana and reaction shots of the royal family shuttering like victims from the blows that her untraditional ways unleashed on them.
The idyllic scenes at Balmoral, and the very ordinary trudging and stalking that seems traditional, including the Queen herself piloting a very noisy Land Rover, were memorable.
The retreat was to protect the young royal heirs from the news (they are always seen from behind). There is irony in the royals stalking a 14 point glorious stag, in juxtaposition to the stalking paparazzi that chased Dodi Fayed and Diana on the night they died. The Queen, stuck fording a stream, spies the gorgeous animal on a knoll, and is awestruck at the beauty of the buck; she urges him to escape.
Even more oddly, the neighbors shoot the deer, and she is compassionately moved to visit the kill and see if it is indeed her stag. She emanates the warmth and emotion for the beast quite naturally here, but the feelings completely elude her in regard to the mother of her grandchildren.
I expected this to be a more light-hearted movie, but it was more moving and sympathetic than I expected. Mirren and Cromwell were perfect as Elizabeth and Philip, both capturing looks and sparked reality as to the characters they played. Sheen and McCrory as the Blairs were optimistic and energetic, the opposites of where they are in the esteem of their countrymen, not unlike the views about the leadership in this country.
And the scenery is beautiful. The movie is worth seeing on the large screen because of the vistas.