“Something’s happened. There’s been a change, some shift in values.” HM The Queen in The Queen
I spent the night before Thanksgiving watching The Queen, which I had not seen in a while, and is a film I enjoy very much. On the surface, I suppose that might seem downright un-American, on par with a friend of mine who spent Independence Day last year in London. (In her defense, she did eat at McDonald’s on the 4th. USA! USA!) However, I was actually thinking about the movie ever since the election. I was thinking about how the American media is now set up in such a way that people can choose to only listen to their own opinions. A conservative minded person can choose to only watch Fox of listen to Glen Beck, and a liberal person can choose to only watch MSNBC or listen to NPR. Moreover, they can choose to only visit blogs or websites that promote similar points of view. Thus, a large portion of society can find themselves living in an echo chamber, hearing only the views of people like themselves, and wrongly believing that everyone thinks the way they do.
In a way, we can all live like the queen, figuratively speaking, locked up in Balmoral, away from the rest of society, believing that our point of view is the only right point of view, and more importantly ,that everyone else in the world thinks the same way as we do. Actually, the Queen is far less removed in the movie than many people. Even in Balmoral, she reads the newspapers (many of them) every day, and watches TV programs that are not necessarily supportive of her.
To me, The Queen is a fascinating film, in large part because of the writing and the tour de force performance of Helen Mirren. Every time I watch the film, I keep thinking, “This time she’ll tip her hand. This time she’ll make her feelings clear.” And yet, she does not. The film does not. The queen gives reasons for staying in Balmoral, but are they reasons or excuses? Is her determination to stay in Balmoral really an act of concern for her grandchildren, or is it a vindictive act against her troublesome ex daughter in law? Does the Queen really believe that it is wrong to lower Royal Standard for anyone, or does she simply resent the idea of acknowledging Diana’s death? The film gives no definitive answer.
Indeed, The Queen can be seen as a bit of a Rorschach test. If a person is predisposed to be sympathetic to the Queen, then the Queen’s explanations will seem reasonable. If a person does not like the Queen, then the Queen will seem cold and out of touch. In the same way, the actions of the people of London will also seem either heartfelt or slightly insane, based on a person’s own point of view.
The film wisely decides to use a tremendous amount of newsreel footage of the death of the Princess of Wales and the public reaction. The images of that week are so plentiful, and so strong, that to see them again brings the viewer right back into that week. Even I, as an American, remember seeing the people lined up for hours to put flowers at Buckingham or Kensington palace (There’s more than one palace! I thought.) I remember one person placing flowers saying, “God bless you Princess Diana” while another mourner sat on the ground and wailed. I don’t mean cried, I mean wailed. I half expected him to start tearing his garments in grief. As I watched, I turned to my parents and said, “Mom, Dad, why are they acting like this?” I had never seen anything like it. (“Sleeping on the streets, pulling out their hair, for someone they never knew? And they think we’re mad!” HRH Duke of Edinburgh)
While the depiction of the Queen is up for debate, I think that the depiction of HRH The Prince of Wales is a negative portrayal. He does not come across as uncaring. He does right by his ex-wife, bringing her body back to Britain, and lovingly tells his poor sons about the death of their beloved mother. (The film wisely keeps the young princes in the shadows, and never shows them. I would have been outraged if they had done otherwise.) However, he comes across as a total wuss. He is too afraid to confront his mother over her actions, even when her actions are subject to profound criticism in the media. Rather, he depends on his private secretary and the Prime Minister to do the dirty work for him. (One particularly comical scene is when his private secretary calls the Prime Minister with a cryptic message, as he sits, his face twitching in the background, urging his secretary on.) He’s also terrified of being shot, apparently, voicing his concern in the movie, and reacting in terror to a motorcycle. I have to admit, as an American, I laughed at the idea of the Prince of Wales being worth the trouble of shooting.
The key relationship within the movie of is the relationship between the Queen and the newly elected Prime Minister, Tony Blair, played very well by Michael Sheen. The relationship between the two starts out with the power clearly on the side of the Queen, as Tony Blair nervously awaits his first meeting with the Queen, and she subtly intimidating him and putting him in his place. “You are my tenth Prime Minister, Mr. Blair. My first was Winston Churchill. He sat in your chair.” By the end of the film, the balance of power has completely shifted. Tony Blair is riding a tremendous surge of popularity, and the Queen is chastened and wounded by a confusing and distressing summer. The Prime Minister, rather than lording it over her, tries to restore her self esteem, and the film ends with the two of them forging a new partnership, on more equal footing.
The Queen is a great movie for discussions, because, like the movie Doubt, people bring their own perceptions and preconceived notions about the Royal Family and Princess Diana’s death to the movie. It is also a great movie because it may leave the viewer with more questions than answers.