Stephen Frears/UK/2006; R4 (SE)
Icon/Warner Bros, NZ$39.95 | Reviewed by Simon Sweetman

CERTAIN celebrity deaths don’t so much capture the zeitgeist as put a mortal/morbid frame around it. The best examples are when a figure is a celebrity and there is a political undertone – obvious examples are JFK and Martin Luther King. Slightly removed but just as pertinent was the death of John Lennon. Kurt Cobain’s death will always signal the end of grunge, but there was no extra context. Likewise, Anna Nicole Smith’s recent passing is what we get in this Famous-For-Being-Famous celebutante era. But the most significant celebrity death in the lifetime of both Generation X and Y would have to be that of Princess Diana; the car crash that caused it becoming an ironic metaphor for how her death was handled by the media and the Royal Family.

The Queen is not quite a movie about Queen Elizabeth II – and yet it is. And it is not quite a film about the death of Princess Diana – and yet it is. Stephen Frears (almost always excellent, and, at the least, a dedicated risk-taker) has done a great job in making an almost obvious TV-movie into something far bigger. But then, that makes sense. The death of Diana became bigger than anyone could have guessed; vigils around the world, people crying for days even though, if they were honest, their ordinary lives were never even close to being touched by this “people’s princess”. There was that ridiculous Elton John re-write. There was the fact that the new Prime Minister of England (Tony Blair) reacted so quickly to the public’s grief and made himself a star instantly. And in the background, you have the war between Blur and Oasis, you have the fact that England’s music was being taken hugely seriously – for the first time since the late 1960s and the fact that, as a world community, we were still interested in defining moments in other people’s lives, rather than the trivial lunacy that comes with being too involved with email and txt-msging, with reality TV and paparazzo adventures.

So, it’s an interesting time to make a movie about – and that’s where Frears takes us, although he allows all of that background baggage to simmer, the flame is held directly in underneath the Royal Family and because Helen Mirren is so utterly engaging in almost any role she takes (is she the conflation of Judi Dench and Meryl Streep?) this movie is ultimately a triumph.

I am not a royalist. No way. Not a chance. I found them ridiculous long before Diana died. I still do. And I had no initial interest in even watching this movie – but it’s a subtle piece that deals with a piece of recent history in an interesting way. Frears combines a lot of actual news footage (too much perhaps? It does start to feel like a factional documentary at times – though it could be argued that that was his intent) and the lensing of the scripted material is flat and measured, evoking a no-frills approach to mirror the stoic tone of Mirren in particular and of the largely humourless Royal Family. It’s distressing, or at the least, unfortunate, that the actor chosen to play Charles looks nothing like him – a blessing in any other situation I’m sure! – but he does his best to provide that stiff, almost glib, detached from reality unctuousness that is Prince Charles. Tony Blair is brilliantly played by Michael Sheen (but then he has the distinct advantage of having played Blair in a previous Frears project, The Deal).

I questioned some of the Queen’s actions – I literally find it hard to believe that the actual Queen does anything beyond and outside of public engagements – but I never questioned her motives. That, again, is the power of Helen Mirren. And in the end we feel sympathy for a character we should never come close to empathising with – which is clearly proof that Frears has succeeded.

THE SPECIAL FEATURES include a photography slideshow, an audio commentary and a Making-Of documentary. The documentary and commentary are great; director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan constantly disagree with each other – further showing that the finished product has clearly been left for open interpretation.