When Princess Diana died in a car crash that day back in 1997, the events that ensued afterwards set in motion a wave of anger and despair – a distrust and hatred towards the monarchy. It seemed that our collective love for Diana was so big it had nowhere else to go but to evolve into a storm of blame. It was the drunk driver, it was the paparazzi, it was the Royal Family.
The world turned on Queen Elizabeth, in particular. Why wasn’t the flag being flown at half-mast? Why hadn’t Her Majesty said anything to the people? Was Diana really going to be treated in death as poorly as they had treated her in life? And what of her boys? Are they to be raised in that toxic environment of coldness and duty?
Writer Peter Morgan had a different idea when he wrote The Queen, an impossibly brilliant reflection of those tragic events from the Queen’s own point of view. The entire film would then be dependent on whom they chose to play Her. In choosing Helen Mirren, director Stephen Frears gives us one of the best characters, and certainly performances, of the year. Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth is so skillfully, compassionately drawn we can finally see the ruler as a woman, a human being, a mother, a wife, a daughter, and yes, a grandmother. It is a magnificent, flawless performance.
Helen Mirren has been working for decades. It was she who paraded around stark naked in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. It was she who gave us Jane Tennyson, the tough yet vulnerable inspector in the long running Prime Suspect. I have often maintained and said repeatedly that a man’s character can be judged by whether or not he likes Helen Mirren. If you meet a man who doesn’t, run the other way.
Mirren is one of the few actresses working who wears every one of the lines on her face like a roadmap of her own history. Those lines tell you about her life, her emotional inside, how she smiled, how she cried, how she worries. While most actresses are trying in vain to botox their history away, Mirren is doing the opposite. Without them, she couldn’t have played this part, and what a part!
No one can play fierce vulnerability as well as Mirren. Her private moments as Jane Tennyson are filled with self-reflection and sorrow, sometimes regret – but she always pulls it all together for the job. She brings these same qualities to her Queen (she also played the other Queen Elizabeth for HBO earlier this year). It is the Queen’s private moments where her true self is revealed. Of course she felt Diana’s death. Of course she cried. But she was raised from birth to put herself second, to shelve her feelings publicly. And suddenly, because of our love for Diana, like a mass of screaming infants, we wanted our mother figure to care too.
Frears and Morgan do more than just explain things from the Royals point of view; they give us a chance to re-examine our own feelings about Diana, our need to find a reason why bad things happen, and most of all, why we need so desperately to believe that there are real angels fluttering around us, mythic creatures that remove us from the hideousness of our plain lives. Mirren’s Elizabeth looks at us, with her chin firmly up and her mask of duty on. And suddenly, our experience of Diana’s death shifts ever so slightly and makes room for an understanding that things are never as they seem, especially when filtered through a media that are selling products through our unending interest.
Michael Sheen as Tony Blair gives a layered performance that is as sincere as it is ultimately smarmy. James Cromwell is a suitably mean Prince Philip. It’s a wonder any other performance is noticed, however, whenever Mirren is on screen.