The summer of 1997 is not one that The Royal Family will look back on fondly. The landslide victory of Tony Blair, the Labour ‘moderniser’, marks the start of a series of events which nobody could have predicted and which threaten to have calamitous consequences for Queen Elizabeth II and her family. With a mixture of dramatised imaginings of what went on behind closed doors as well as news footage from the time, The Queen tells the story of those few weeks.
The film begins on a fallacious but nevertheless dramatically significant note with a discussion between Queen Elizabeth and her portrait painter du jour about about her inability to vote. Technically speaking, there is no legal bar, but that’s by the by as the scene raises a significant point. As she sits for the portrait, adorned with the all the traditional regalia of rulership, she actually has no power at all, particularly not against the surging tide of modernity (as will soon become painfully apparent).
The next morning, The Queen’s private secretary, Robin Janvrin, informs her that the Prime Minster is on his way (“Prime Minister to be, Robin, I haven’t asked him yet.”) Cue a scene of procedural awkwardness and ill-executed ceremonial backward-shuffling from new Prime Minister, Mr ‘call-me-Tony’ Blair. This first meeting between Her Majesty and Blair lasts for no longer than fifteen minutes before Janvrin brings it to a halt with news- Princess Diana has been courting controversy (again).
Flash forward to the fateful evening of the 30th August 1997, Parisian photographers circling like vultures as a young woman and her lover step out of a hotel and into their car, driving off at high speed along darkened roads. Shots of the car are cleverly intermingled with real archive scenes from Diana’s life; the film makers sensibly avoid anything graphic. We all know what happens next.
In his bedroom at Queen’s Elizabeth’s Scottish estate, Balmoral, Robin Janvrin gets a rude awakening as a late night caller informs him that Diana has been injured in a car accident. He brings them the news and must later be the bearer of worse tidings still as Prince Charles, Prince Philip, The Queen Mother and The Queen herself hover anxiously around a television set in their nightclothes.
The next morning Tony Blair gives a speech drafted by his director of communications, Alastair Campbell- in it, he refers to Diana as ‘the people’s princess.’ Janvrin- a traditionalist- comments that it’s ‘a bit over the top’ (a comment that falls on deaf ears as fellow staff members sniff into their handkerchiefs). And so begins an extremely decorous tug-of-war between Blair- who appreciates the need for Queen Elizabeth to appear as a public figure- and The Queen’s only view that grief should be a private affair.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that there is simply no procedure in place for the death of an ex-Royal. A public funeral is decided upon- much to the dismay of senior Royals (and Janvrin, who is once again called upon to make that particular announcement, as well as to reveal that the guest list will include representatives from Diana’s charities and… “celebrities“).
Meanwhile, public anger is being directed at the Royal Family who, distanced from the people of London, are failing to interpret the mood; “in 48 hours this will have all died down,” states Prince Philip, with confident cluelessness that is contrasted sharply with news footage from the time. One newspapers remarks: “One can’t help wondering whose advice they are taking, for it’s clearly the wrong advice” (Janvrin responds that he’ll “try not to take that personally.”)
With the help of Blair and an increasingly ruffled Robin, the Queen will of course weather the storm which at one point saw one in four people turn Republican. She will not emerge entirely unshaken, however, taking away from the experience an altered perception of the role of the modern monarchy and some sobering thoughts for the young, popular Blair: “you saw those headlines and thought ‘one day that might happen to me’- and it will, Mr Blair, quite suddenly and without warning.” Prophetic, indeed…
- Roger Allam – Robin Janvrin
- Helen Mirren – HM Queen Elizabeth II
- James Cromwell – Prince Philip
- Alex Jennings – Prince Charles
- Michael Sheen – Tony Blair
- Alastair Campbell – Mark Bazeley
- Director: Stephen Frears
- Writer: Peter Morgan
For full cast & crew, please visit IMDb
Roger Allam said:
“It was hugely enjoyable to work with Stephen Frears and with Helen [Mirren] who I’d done a TV film with previously. It was just a very, very happy experience.”
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