The Queen (U.K. 2006). Written by Peter Morgan. Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen.
She was never supposed to be queen. She was expected to spend her days as a minor member of the royal family, living quietly and occasionally cutting ribbons on new wings of provincial old age homes. She wasn’t supposed to be of any importance at all.
In 1936, her grand-father, King George V, was dying, and government and palace officials were contemplating with horror the prospect that Edward Windsor, the Prince of Wales, would become the sovereign of the United Kingdom and the Emperor of India. Edward was, to put it bluntly, a moron, easily led, with terrible judgment – the perfect argument against any form of hereditary monarchy. He was also in thrall to his mistress, a grasping American socialite named Wallis Simpson.
King George V died in January 1936, and Edward automatically became King Edward VIII. He quickly confirmed everybody’s suspicions of his inadequacy. He watched his own proclamation of accession from a palace window in the company of Mrs. Simpson – something new monarchs do not do. He made unauthorized public comments about politics – something constitutional monarchs are forbidden from doing. The British and American intelligence services, aware of the gathering storm on the Continent, grew increasingly concerned about Mrs. Simpson’s friendships with Nazi officials and her access to government documents.
Months of controversy reached their height when Edward announced that he would marry Mrs. Simpson when her divorce proceedings were final. Legally, he could marry her and remain king. But factions within the government used the marriage as the excuse needed to convince the idiot that he had to abdicate the throne, which he did in December 1936.
The cover story is that King Edward voluntarily renounced the throne to be with the woman he loved. In reality, he was pushed, and he was pushed hard. His brother George became king. George had no sons, but he had two daughters, the elder of whom was named Elizabeth.
Which is how a 10-year-old girl found herself in line to be the queen (pictured). Her life was meant to be fairly free and private, but, over the twelve months of 1936, her freedom drained away, never to return, and all without her consent. One can only wonder how well she understood at that age what was happening and how it would transform her life.
As depicted in the film The Queen, Elizabeth Windsor lives in a lavish jail, of which she is both prisoner and warden. She could retire at any time and pass the crown to her son, but she would never do that. She has her duty, her role to play, and she wouldn’t consider for an instant acting in a manner that she believes is inappropriate.
The movie is about the clash between two opinions of what is appropriate after the 1997 death of Princess Diana Spencer. Elizabeth believed that the death of her ex-daughter-in-law was a private affair of the Spencer family, while newly elected prime minister Tony Blair believed that the public mood demanded an acknowledgement of grief from the royal family.
Importantly, the film presents both sides of this debate and, if anything, sympathizes with the queen’s stiff upper lip attitude, a characteristic which, she says, is why the world admires the British. I admire the British because they make films in which calm and restraint are virtues, while American dramas are Oprah-infused emotional saunas. At the few instances in the film when a member of the royal family sheds tears, it’s exactly correct in terms of character, not a plot device to manipulate the audience.
The filmmakers cared that little things were done well. The fusty wallpaper in the rooms at Balmoral told its own tale, as did the Range Rovers driven by the royals. The film barely depicts Princes William and Harry, who had just lost their mother, because their story would be a different movie. The only inaccuracy that I spotted was that the stack of newspapers handed to the queen in the morning did not contain The Racing Post, which is reportedly on the top of the pile.
The casting and characterization of the smallest roles was considered. In one scene, the queen visits an adjoining estate and is greeted by a Scottish gamekeeper who does not flinch at her presence. His manner is incongruous when compared with the obsequiousness of the palace staff, but it makes sense. The gamekeeper probably worked on the estate most of his life and had probably seen her dozens of time. At that moment, they were two senior citizens discussing hunting. When was the last time an American movie, even a self-proclaimed “serious” film like Babel, made you wonder about the backstory of a character who appeared for less than five minutes?
Although Elizabeth’s own backstory is mentioned only once – when Blair states that she has a job “she never asked for” – it frames the action like a proscenium arch frames a play. In 1936, a young girl was forced to adapt to circumstances she didn’t fully understand and, in 1997, history repeated itself.