Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Queen

In theory, I suppose I'm not the natural constituency for Stephen Frears' The Queen, since I really couldn't care less about the royal family one way of the other. On the one hand, they're a rather pointless hangover from a bygone era, but on the other hand, they pay for themselves in tourist income, so it does no harm to keep them around.

But this is an unexpectedly interesting little film. Okay, yes, Mark Kermode probably has a point when he complains that it's really just a TV movie being shown in large scale - it's not the most cinematic thing in the world, and you won't lose anything by waiting for the inevitable primetime showing on ITV. (The film was funded by Granada.) In every other respect, though, this is very good stuff.

The film follows the Royal Family in the days immediately after the death of Princess Diana back in 1997, as they initially misread the public mood altogether, and then have no idea how to react to it. The newly elected Tony Blair ends up leading them by the hand through a minefield of public relations that he at least understands, and which they only begrudgingly acknowledge as relevant.

The big idea is to focus on the Queen as an actual human being trying to come to terms with the situation, and the first ever significant public backlash against her. It's played as a comedy of manners, but never strays into caricature, at least with the major characters. Although wildly fictionalised, the whole point is that it should at least have the aura of credibility. And once you get over the initial hump of actors playing major public figures, it pretty much succeeds.

Some American reviewers seem to think that the point is to show the Queen as out of touch and emotionally damaged, and that the big climax is supposed to be her coming to terms with the need to make some public display of emotion. This is a remarkable misreading of the film, if you ask me. In fact, Morgan and Frears clearly like the Queen a lot, and have tremendous sympathy with her predicament. Her problem here is more fundamental (and goes to the heart of the idea of making a film showing her as a person).

The trappings of monarchy used to symbolise actual power. But the monarch hasn't really had that power for centuries. Nowadays, the institution is almost purely symbolic, although exactly what it symbolises is rather nebulous - a sort of all-purpose continuity with the past, perhaps. The Queen's primary role is to be a living symbol, and for decades she's done just that. By keeping her personality very much to the margins, and surrounding herself with the sort of inscrutable traditions that nobody really understands aside from a handful of constitutional etiquette purists, she makes herself an enigma who can mean whatever you want her to mean.

And this is the right way to do the job. The better we know somebody as a person, the harder it is for them to symbolise anything. This is one of the major problems with Charles as an heir to throne; in large part because of the public scraps with Diana towards the end of her life, he's far too well known by the public, and even the most ardent monarchist finds it difficult to accept him as a symbol for anything at all. His reign will be a very tricky one to pull off.

In the week after Diana dies, the Queen tries to continue as a symbol instead of grieving in public. This is not her mistake. Her mistake is that the traditional way of doing things is wildly misinterpreted by the public. They see the refusal to fly a flag at half mast as an insult, rather than a straightforward application of centuries of protocol. They see the decision to remain in Balmoral as a slight to the seriousness of the situation, rather than as an attempt to keep a dignified silence and allow her children to grieve in peace. In other words, there's a huge communication breakdown and the Queen is symbolising the wrong things.

This is not a film about the Queen learning to become a person rather than a symbol. It's a film about Tony Blair teaching the royals to speak the language of 1997 so that they can symbolise the right things. The demand that the Royal Family should act like human beings in public is actually a fundamental challenge to their purpose in life, and it's no wonder they struggle to understand it. If they start being people and stop being symbols, their last remaining function disappears. In this film, the Queen never concedes the point that she should be acting like a grieving relative before the public. (And why should she? Who the hell do the histrionic crowd of total strangers think they are?) She never shows her true feelings; rather, she learns to give the right signals to convey the impression of humanity without actually showing it directly.

In a wonderful lead performance, Helen Mirren pulls off the difficult balancing act of playing the Queen as a real three-dimensional character while staying true to what we know of her, without lapsing into a comedy impersonation. The trick is not to look at the Queen's public persona and extrapolate from that, but rather to ask what sort of person would construct a public image like hers.

Refreshingly, with the possible exception of Cherie Blair, nobody here is played for caricature. Even Prince Charles is shown in a largely sympathetic light, seriously concerned for his kids and (unique among the royals) recognising from the outset that a different approach is needed. Tony Blair's character arc sees him getting a grip on what the monarchy actually does and why it works. Wisely, Diana is kept to a handful of newsreel clips and otherwise remains an offstage presence.

It's not perfect - Cherie's scenes can be a bit one-dimensional, and there's some really clunky exposition at the beginning where the Queen's aides explain who Tony Blair is for the benefit of any Americans that might be watching. But overall, this is a clever and entertaining little film with some really intriguing ideas about the monarchy - possibly expressed a little too subtly to engage a non-British audience, but that's their loss.