As she continues to enjoy her Diamond Jubilee, Her Majesty has much to reflect on. Among those things she may remember is an Oscar-winning film named after her and based on a particularly challenging period in her reign. Six years on after the film was released does it merit the critical acclaim it received on its release?
Being titled after a monarch that even then had spent over 50 years on the throne, it would have been a bit tricky to cover her entire reign in a single 90-120 minute film. Stephen Frears directs a tale that focuses specifically on the tragic events of late summer 1997 when the death of Princess Diana threatened to cause significant repercussions in the monarchy itself.
The film portrays Her Majesty (Helen Mirren) dealing with the tensions and perspectives of members of the Royal Family and their engagement with the new government of the time the then populist Labour administration headed by Tony Blair (Michael Sheen).
Pulling on a number of real-life historical clips to fill the narrative the film can come across at times as more documentary than drama which at times can be informative and reflective on the one hand, but also can be something of a distraction to a dramatic piece where there are thematic drives that make it a fictional piece. Those drives are at times well explored in the complexities of the two sides – Royalty and Government – where the lines of demarcation are not that straightforward and the piece wishes to show at the one hand a respect for traditional values and on the other hand a desire to ‘update’ old institutions to be more ‘in tune’ with society.
Two critical devices to enables those themes to come across well are the script and the actors. On the latter front the two major roles of the Queen and the Prime Minister are performed well by Mirren and Sheen. I was somewhat surprised that Mirren seemed to hog all the acting acclaim because Sheen’s part in the film is as worthy of recognition. It would be easy to go the caricature route with Blair and Sheen’s Blair could have been hamstrung with sticking with superficial characteristics, but Sheen does a noble job in putting more meat on the bone.
Mirren does a wonderful job as the Monarch. As with Sheen, she’s not impersonating and does not reduce the role to being like the many spoofs that have been around for years. When the need calls to invest the character with emotion, Mirren seems to instinctively know how to pitch it just right, even injecting small doses of humour here and there.
That Sheen and Mirren do such a wonderful job in the roles is all the more remarkable because really the script and narrative structure of the piece is rather flat. Indeed the documentary feel of the film makes it seem rather drab and lifeless. For a film of this length this can actually make it a bit boring at times. This is not helped by many of the other characters in the piece either living up to parody or just coming across as rather two dimensional and so derivative to the purpose of the film that any old role could fulfil the job.
As a point of comparison, The King’s Speech deals with a thematic approach to Royalty but is able to do so with sufficient high points of interest to keep people interested for the duration. The Queen doesn’t quite get the job done and lags in places. As a result, although it is not unsympathetic to a lot of the factors that affected the issue at hand, there is a fair amount of time when the film doesn’t evoke the same emotional response as it probably should have considering the subject material.
This film has a right to take its place among other decent biographical films for sure. It is a relatively interesting view at British Monarchy in crisis. It does not deserve to be up in the higher reaches of great film as it lacks much in narrative structure, depth of characterisation and pacing.