This article is my contribution to the “You Gotta Have Friends” blogathon sponsored by Moon in Gemini. Thanks to DebbieVee for letting me participate!
Ostensibly, Stephen Frears’s 2006 British drama The Queen is about, well, the Queen. Helen Mirren walked off with a well-deserved Academy Award for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, and ten years on the film is remembered chiefly for her performance. The story depicts–with heavy historical liberties–the struggle of the British royal family, and especially Queen Elizabeth, to deal with the sudden death of Princess Diana in August 1997. This is all true enough, but at its heart The Queen is not really about royalty, power, politics or fame. Very simply, it’s about friendship. A very uncommon friendship stands at the heart of the film and is the main reason why it’s successful as a story. It can also teach us a thing or two about friendship in general.
The film opens not with Diana, but a few months earlier in May 1997 as Labour candidate Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) has just won election as Prime Minister. With his wife Cherie (Helen McCrory), who dislikes the institution of the British monarchy, Blair goes to pay the customary call to Queen Elizabeth to have her ask him to form a government in her name. At first the Queen is aloof and Blair, who is quite young, seems unimpressed. Months later when Diana is killed in a car crash in Paris, Elizabeth, who detested Diana and resents her worldwide adoration, keeps to strict royal protocol in framing the palace’s response. This makes her look terribly insensitive and fuels anger among the British people. It falls to Blair to talk some sense into the Queen and get her to break protocol–but that requires using not a political but a personal connection with Elizabeth, the woman, as opposed to dealing with “the Queen.”
The wonderful writing and pacing of The Queen places the growing relationship between Elizabeth and Tony Blair at the center of the story. Their first scene together is almost comical. Blair has been lectured on how to walk, look and even sit in the monarch’s presence. Elizabeth, well aware he’s chafing under the rigid protocol, lectures him about how he is her 10th Prime Minister. “The first was Winston Churchill,” she says, looking down her long nose at him. Much of the rest of their repartee continues in a series of tense telephone calls as the Diana crisis unfolds. There’s a lot of talk of protocol and seemingly trivial matters like whether the flag should be flown at half-staff over Buckingham Palace–a suggestion Elizabeth vociferously resists–but as the film progresses and she becomes more quietly frightened at the public’s souring opinion of her, the viewer can see her slowly and even reluctantly coming to trust Blair’s counsel. By the end of the film it’s strongly implied that they’re close personal friends, or as close as one can get to royalty. Watching this relationship develop is really charming, and a huge source of the likable nature of the film.
One of the scenes I most love in The Queen comes near the end. Elizabeth has finally made a public statement about Diana’s death–breaking protocol and deeply humiliating herself in the process–and Blair’s team, huddled around TVs at 10 Downing Street, are trying to assess the political fallout. When his advisers start poking fun at Elizabeth, mocking her coldness and her inability to empathize with the nation, Blair explodes in fury. He reminds them that Elizabeth never wanted the job of monarch–“A job she watched kill her father,” meaning King George VI–and reminds them that, whatever else she may be, the Queen has tirelessly served her country for over 50 years. The staff, realizing their shame, is suddenly silent. This is perhaps the finest moment of Sheen’s tremendous performance as Tony Blair. He would go on to play Blair two more times, in the films The Deal (2003) and The Special Relationship (2010).
In this early scene from The Queen, the relationship between Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) doesn’t start out so well…but there’s a seed of something to build on.
Mirren’s performance is, of course, a highlight of the film. She goes beyond merely supplying an imitation of the real Queen Elizabeth and instead furnishes a real portrayal. It’s beyond getting her look, voice and mannerisms right–it’s about getting into her mind. One beautiful scene that does this occurs when Elizabeth, hiding away at the royal compound in Balmoral, Scotland, is told by a groundsman that a guest just killed a magnificent stag on the property. Elizabeth saw the same stag, alive, in a previous scene. She asks to see the kill and finds the stag, butchered and hanging, ready to be mounted as a hunting trophy. Her quiet rage and mortification, conveyed without words and almost without tears, is a powerful moment. Here is a woman who feels deeply, but has been unable to show her emotions for almost the entirety of her lifetime. Helen Mirren brings off this scene magnificently.
What this all tells us, I think–what The Queen really means–is that the power of friendship is almost indomitable. In the highest corridors of power, where the fates of nations depend on symbolic gestures as much as real actions, you would not expect personal friendship and emotions to be a factor; actually it might cloud the issues and add an extra peril. In most cases it would be meaningless to say that the Queen is “friends” with the Prime Minister. But this film shows us that, even in the crucible of power, friendship and personal connection can still be hugely meaningful and can in fact make the difference between good outcomes and bad ones. I have no idea what it would be like to be “friends” with a person in a high position of power. The Queen, though, shows us a little of what that might be like, and why it’s important.
Blair blows up at his staff–in defense of his friend, the Queen. A fine scene from Frears’s excellent film.
Thanks again to Debbie Vee of Moon in Gemini.