Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Queen

Poster for The Queendir Stephen Frears

In the week that Gordon Brown has been confirmed officially as the next PM after 10 years of unofficially occupying this role, it's instructive to consider the early days of his predecessor, Tony Blair, as depicted in the Oscar-winning The Queen. Of course, Helen Mirren in the title role is the main attraction but Michael Sheen's depiction of Blair catches the eye, with many amusing insights into the Blair Years on view.

Remembering the excitement caused by a Labour government, then a novelty, I was amused to see Sheen's doe-eyed Blair arriving at Buckingham Palace in 1997 for his first meeting with the monarch, looking for all the world like a naughty schoolboy being called to account by the headmistress. Sheen/Blair's every twitch, toothy grin and gormless gesture was met with hilarity by the audience with whom I watched the film, all of us conditioned by 10 years of caricature from the likes of Rory Bremner. It's hard to know where the man ends and the character begins.

Best knowing line:
Aide: Tony, Gordon's on the line.

Blair: Tell him to wait. (And wait and wait...)

Oh, how we laughed.

Anyway, back to The Queen. I wasn't expecting it to be so laugh-out-loud funny. I mean, a film depicting the aftermath of Diana's death with the country experiencing mass hysteria and the royals ensconced in their summer residence of Balmoral castle doesn't seem promising material for comedy.

But Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan deliver laughs aplenty from the mutual incomprehension of the public, the royals and their advisors and the new Labour government struggling to extract approval ratings from the situation. Blair and Alistair Campbell take on the role of the young modernisers, with Prince Charles (depicted as a handwringing bumbler) trying to cosy up to the new government, while his mother and Prince Philip hold their ground as the traditionalists. In the background is the doddering Queen Mother, clutching her gin and muttering about the absurdities of going against hundreds of years of tradition.

Early scenes of the monarch's brood are more Royle Family than royal family, as they gather around the television watching the coverage of the public's grief and grumbling among themselves. Surely, it cannot have happened this way, with Philip bellowing to be heard and Charles storming off to book a flight to Paris on (shock, horror) a public flight because Mummy wouldn't sanction the royal jet? One almost expects him to burst into tears and clutch at her skirt.

Indeed, it is the queen herself who is reduced to seeking solace from mummy, tentatively knocking at her mother's door and asking her advice on the thorny manner of flying the royal standard at Buckingham Palace, at the behest of the PM who has advised her that her inactions may be damaging the monarchy. It is food for thought to wonder whether the monarchy was really in danger of being toppled over the royal family's lack of visible grief at Diana's demise. Are such monumental decisions really that subject to outpourings of emotion?

Blair's reaction is very telling. At first scornful of the old fossils he is dealing with at the palace, he comes to support the queen, even telling off Campbell in the process. Is it because he hopes for the same kind of staying power as the queen, then on her tenth prime minister? Is it because he sees in her his lost mother, as Cherie (depicted as having a sharp tongue but consistent views, unlike her malleable hubby) suggests? Is it because he wants to be on the winning side, whoever that may be? Hard to tell.

And what of the motif of the handsome 14-point (whatever that means) stag being stalked around the estate by Philip and the young princes while the queen struggles with her emotions, her duty coming first? What does the stag represent that she is so moved by its death? Diana? The monarchy? The queen herself? Again, hard to tell.

A puzzling film then, in some respects, but unexpectedly illuminating, even for those of us who lived through the events on show. I was intrigued to learn Her Majesty and I have something in common, albeit for very different reasons: neither of us can vote.

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