Princess Diana was mourned by the world’s public to a degree not seen since Elvis was found on the toilet. Though she came from royalty, Diana seemed to be viewed as the storybook everygirl who had found her prince. I tend to think back on her as an attractive blank that millions of people projected onto — an image of perseverance and charity. Even Americans were fascinated by Diana, an unseemly sentiment from a people descended from opponents to the very idea of the throne.
The conflict of The Queen, a small but precise drama chronicling the immediate aftermath of Diana’s death and its impact on England and the Royal Family, is between the traditional and the modern — on more levels than one. In a prologue to the events, we see Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) ascending to the office of Prime Minister on a wave of public support. Blair pays his first visit to Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren), who knows that he has risen based on his spoken intent to “modernize.” Yes, good luck with that while I’m still here, her manner seems to sneer, though outwardly she is never less than polite.
After Diana’s fatal crash, the English public launches into sloppy mass grieving. This is not a response the Queen has been aware of in her lifetime — she can perhaps be forgiven for missing the flower-bedecked shrines to John Lennon. Who are these people? Surely they’re not the stoic English people she remembers. The world looks to England for an example of dignity and grace under pressure, not this…this public sobbing. What the Queen hasn’t anticipated, because she only knew Diana as a rather annoying girl who never knew her role, is Diana’s phenomenal popularity among the people — indeed, “the people’s princess,” as Blair refers to her.
Director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan keep the behind-the-curtains intrigue on a low simmer. Nobody could really have believed that the public would rise up and howl for the Queen’s head because she failed to respond publicly to Diana’s passing; but Blair points to rumblings in the press as proof that she’s really not getting the point of all this. This isn’t just the death of a former HRH, or the death of a woman; this is the death of a symbol of idealism — the sort of modernized sensibility shared by Tony Blair and anathema to the royal way of life. In effect, the Queen must publicly mourn something she cannot conceive of supporting.
Playing a woman who never shows her emotional hand, Helen Mirren gets all of this across with the tiniest flickers of doubt. She allows the Queen her dignified remoteness while quietly subverting it — which comes across as the Queen, once a young woman herself, subverting herself. With animals, such as her beloved Corgis, the Queen is comfortable and cheerful, because they don’t know she’s the Queen, nor do they angle for her favor for political reasons. And she gets a look at a mighty stag, soon to be shot down sloppily and hung up ignominiously, and she might conclude that the idea of royalty might suffer a similar fate in the tabloids, or worse. Mirren gives the opposite of an over-the-top Oscar-chasing performance, which makes the increasingly likely prospect of her actually winning one all the more tickling. Like the Queen, Mirren is saying: This is how you act, this is how you survive, this is how you reign.