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The Queen

One might think that all monarchs arrive in their position as a cause of birthright, an assumed inevitability, but as a young girl, Princess Elizabeth of York never expected to become the Queen of England. Her father, The Duke of York, was second in line to the throne behind his elder brother, Edward, Prince of Wales. But when Edward (coronated Edward VIII) famously abdicated the throne in 1936 after falling in love with American divorcée Wallis Simpson, Elizabeth's father succeeded him as George VI, and 10-year-old Elizabeth was duly invested as the Heiress Presumptive to the throne, coronated as Queen upon her father's death in 1951. Despite serving as the fourth-longest ruling monarch of the British Empire, Elizabeth remains both a highly public figure and an intriguing enigma. The Queen serves as the head of the government, the military, and Church of England, but she rarely offers public comments beyond her ceremonial duties, even though she's regularly advised and consulted the nation's prime ministers for decades, dating back to Winston Churchill. Expectedly conservative in most matters (indeed, her hairstyle has barely changed since her accession), she nonetheless has served as Great Britain's first modern monarch, overseeing a post-colonial empire that has changed substantially since World War II. Still, the House of Windsor has not been above scrutiny during her lifetime, particularly with the tabloid press. And it was only after the marriage of her son Charles to Lady Diana Spencer, their eventual divorce, and Diana's tragic death in 1997, that the monarchy was forced to realize that their power depended not only upon good relations with the Parliament, but with the headline writers of Fleet Street as well.

Stephen Frears' The Queen (2006) takes place in 1997, opening on the morning that British voters replaced 18 years of Conservative rule in the House of Commons with a landslide victory for the Labour Party. However, this time around it's "New Labour," a party chastened by the strikes and economic turmoil of the 1970s, critical of the successive Thatcher/Major governments, and now committed to thoroughly modernizing the nation under the watch of party leader, and presumptive Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). However, Blair cannot become leader of the government until he's asked by Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) — after all, she may not be able to vote, but it is her government. Elizabeth isn't sure what to make of Blair's reformist attitudes, or the informal nature of his administration, but their tenuous working relationship is unexpectedly strained four months later by the death of Princess Diana in a Paris car crash. At first, the Queen insists that Diana's death and funeral is a private matter, since she could no longer style herself "Her Royal Highness" after her divorce from Charles (Alex Jennings). However, 10 Downing Street quickly realizes how much Diana's death will strike a chord with the British public, leading Blair to deliver a public address the next day, describing her as "the people's princess." The piles of flowers at Buckingham Palace fuel even more press coverage, while a grief-stricken Charles personally flies to Paris to collect the body. Even then, the Royal family remains at Balmoral, their estate in Scotland — indeed, they seem more interested in a 14-point stag recently spotted in the highlands than the controversy surrounding their silence. But after Charles opens back-channel communications with Blair, and the Queen's own advisors agree with Downing Street that a public funeral is inevitable, Elizabeth is given a proposal that "Tay Bridge" be enacted — it's the code-name for the expected London funeral of the still-living Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms), and the only one sufficiently massive enough that's been rehearsed.

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With its behind-closed-doors look at rapid, fluid negotiations between Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, The Queen plays like a drama of court intrigue, a tale as old as the works of Shakespeare or even films such as A Man for All Seasons (1966) and Elizabeth (1998). However, it's also very much a story of two families, the Windsors and the Blairs. Tony Blair's wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) had already earned a reputation for anti-monarchist sentiment (on one occasion failing to curtsey properly to the Queen), and she finds herself confounded by her liberal-minded husband, who, over the course of one week, increasingly dedicates his efforts to defending the Queen to others whilst politely imploring her to embrace the public's grief over Diana's death. Our intimate look at the Windsors in their Scottish retreat is even more fascinating, for the most famous family in the world still is, more or less, a family, watching the news on television in their dressing gowns and getting into petty little debates over serious matters. But what makes the Windsors so very different is the very fact of their monarchy — we soon realize that they are close-knit simply because immediate family is the only form of peerage that they know; all others are resigned to the ceremonial interactions of lower orders, and if we gain sympathy for Elizabeth it's because we soon realize that her job allows for few, if any, friends. However, the sealed privilege of castles and palaces also becomes the Windsors' fundamental weakness. The death of Diana reveals Balmoral to be the calm center of an unseen storm; indeed, Diana's two sons are taken by Prince Philip (James Cromwell) to stalk the elk in the hopes of distracting them from their grief. For Tony Blair, Diana's death represents the first emergency of his young government; for the Palace, it's the greatest crisis since Edward VIII's sudden and unceremonious abdication. But Elizabeth's misplaced faith in the "Britishness" of her people — whom she believes will absorb the loss with the silent, whispered dignity of earlier generations — is her deepest flaw, for the era of celebrity demands public displays and mea cuplas. On occasion, even the most powerful find that they have to take a knee as well. Helen Mirren's Best Actress Oscar for her role was well-deserved, even if it reinforced the sad fact that Academy voters usually vote for recognizable portrayals of actual people. Nonetheless, Mirren carefully avoids impersonation, offering a practical interpretation of Elizabeth rather than mere caricature, from her schoolmarm's attitude toward Blair to her walking around Balmoral clutching a hot-water bottle and her fearless driving of an old military truck around her vast Scottish estate. It's more than pleasant or eye-opening or humanizing — it's critical for a film such as this, asking us to empathize with a woman who may be stubborn and unforgiving, but one who also finds herself facing down sensibilities of separate eras within her people, and within her own family.

Buena Vista/Miramax's DVD relase of The Queen offers an excellent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) of a source-print with an intended variance — director Stephen Frears chose to shoot all of the Palace material on 35mm, while the Downing Street events are captured in 16mm with a hint of verité instability; newsreel and television footage also fills out much of the settings. Extras include two commentaries — one from Frears and writer Peter Morgan, who sound like two old friends simply watching the movie together, and a second from author Robert Lacey, who offers continuous historical details and trivia. Also on hand is the featurette "The Making of The Queen," with comments from cast and crew (19 min.). Keep-case.

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