NO MONTY PYTHON CARICATURE HERE: not with Helen Mirren in the role.
Every tragedy reaches a point where mourning turns to kitsch. Even the most devastating — the assassination of JFK, 9/11 — end up as gimcracks and snow globes. For Princess Di, this fate came fairly quickly. The growing piles of flowers around Buckingham Palace after her death marked not just the outpouring of spontaneous grief but the growth of self-indulgent, sentimental spectacle. By the time of the public funeral, which had been long begrudged by the Royal Family for reasons unfathomable to tabloids demanding that the people be “comforted,” the traditional procession of world rulers and dignitaries had given way, in the tart phrase of Prince Philip (James Cromwell), to “a chorus line of soap actors and homosexuals!”
Okay, so they’re not the most enlightened monarchs. Boorish, reactionary, possibly inbred, but they had taste. And now they have Helen Mirren, whose portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II is a sure bet at Oscar time. Early in Stephen Frears’s transparently directed film, she stares icily askance at the camera and then directly into it, and it’s like the face on a pound note coming to life. More than an impersonation, though, her performance is a revelation, not just of the steel beneath the surface but of the suffering, doubting heart as well.
No wonder newly elected Labour PM Tony Blair (Michael Sheen, who’s mastered Blair’s “Cheshire grin,” as Philip again acutely puts it) has butterflies at his first audience. Although his platform has promised a radical break with tradition, he’s still in awe, and he muffs the protocol. Elizabeth bolsters him with detached solicitude, then cuts the meeting short to attend to another mini-scandal from the ex of her son Charles (a sulky, kilted Alex Jennings). Seen only in news clips, Diana nonetheless shadows her mother-in-law, her popularity and vulgarity a rebuke to the queen’s Olympian reticence. Her death only intensifies the contrast. It occurs while the Royal Family is in retreat at Balmoral Castle, and the queen decides to remain isolated there, comforting William and Harry, and make no public statement. Such has been the tradition for centuries.
It doesn’t work that way in the age of celebrity worship, an age Blair and especially his canny aide Campbell (Tim McMullan), who’s drafting Blair’s statement an hour after Diana dies, embrace. That statement, in which Blair declared Diana “the People’s Princess,” sent his approval ratings soaring.
At the expense, of course, of HRH. Their relationship in the film, however, is not antagonistic. Although played out mostly via telephone, it is a delicate pas de deux representing the passing of a perhaps better order of things. Blair at one point blasts those of his circle making nasty snipes at the beaten queen, defending her seeming coldness as dignity and decency, a reproach to the easy emotions of the present day.
Certainly Elizabeth is the one who proves noblest, and most endearing. No Monty Python caricature here, not with Mirren in the role. In a scene near the end, she jumps behind the wheel of a Range Rover, takes a jaunt through Balmoral’s vast grounds, and comes a cropper in the middle of stream. She looks up and sees a magnificent stag — the quarry of Philip and the two young princes, who are “stalking.” “Beauty,” she says. You look at her face and agree.