I remember when I first heard that Princess Diana had died: I was on a flight from Singapore to the US, about to begin college, and sometime during the flight a cryptic piece of news came onto the Singapore Airlines news screen: "Princess Di hurt in car accident in Paris". In those days you couldn't get much more than a little snippet of news, so you only had a sense that something vaguely terrible had happened. Even after landing in San Francisco, there wasn't much more word: as I recall, the headlines of the papers at the newsstand were of the previous day's, before the crash; it was only in landing in transit in Pennsylvania, coming upon a bank of newspaper boxes, that it was clear that what had happened was a major event the whole world over.
In Stephen Frears' The Queen, the royal family is similarly removed from the impact of the death of Diana. Helen Mirren as the titular character (and titular head of state) gives a superb, justifiably lauded performance of a woman caught between her sense of appropriate duty and a country whose values have shifted around her.
This may be The Queen, but the ghost of Princess Di (or, an "ex-HRH" as Prince Philip (James Cromwell) so bluntly puts it) haunts the palace. And in her death what was once celebrated as stoicism became seen as cold remove; Queen Elizabeth II's certainty that the British public would shun public expressions of grief was undercut by waves upon waves of flowers outside Buckingham Palace, by footage of grown men crying, by news headlines effectively questioning
Frears' film, a sober reflection on the events of one crazed week in 1997, doesn't show us anything new about most of the principal characters involved (well, unless your view of the royals comes strictly from Hello magazine): Prince Philip still comes across as a blowhard toff, Alistair Campbell as a brilliant but smug speechwriter. Perhaps the only new aspect of character that comes across is Charles as the first royal to grasp the significance of Diana's death to the public, and his worry about being targeted - or even shot - by an angry public.
But we are not here for revelation, but illustration. And what this film sharly illustrates is the development of the relationship between the Queen and the "modernising" government of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). Blair starts off awkward, gawky, but quickly gains ascendancy and surefootedness as he responds to the death of Diana in politically savvy manner (his "People's Princess" speech was surely one of his rhetorical high points), and soon Blair finds himself in the role of advising the Queen, rather than the other way around. For all her instinctive disdain for Blair's upstart ways, the Queen grows to realise the quality of his advice; Blair on his part develops a surprising fealty to the Queen (to the republican Cherie Blair's teasing amusement).
Sheen does a pitch-perfect Tony Blair, down to the sound of his voice, although an outburst at Alistair Campbell in support of the Queen comes across as over the top, and overly tells the audience what is apparent from the rest of the film. It is perhaps the only false note in the film.
In the end, this is a film about commoners as much as royalty: about the leader of the Commons teaching royalty how to act; about the significant role of the commoners who advise the Queen behind the scenes (and in that regard give far better advice on the British public's mood than either Philip or the Queen Mum, both who come across as clinging on to outmoded ideas of the British public); and about the importance of the British public not just to the politicians, but also to the legitimacy of the Queen's existence. And in Mirren's finely nuanced portrait of the Queen, we see a woman more keenly aware of that last point than the rabid tabloid headlines of 1997 would have had us believe.