Every so often it seems, a film’s hype is justified. It doesn’t happen often and as viewers, we have all felt the sting of buying into either a studio’s saturated marketing blitz or the universal praise of critics, only to find that the film wasn’t all they made it out to be.
On occasion, however, they are correct. Sony marketed the hell out of Casino Royale last year as the best James Bond film in years, to which they were almost right. And American film critics last fall were unanimous in their praise for Stephen Frears” British drama The Queen. And by Jove, what do you know? They were right!
The film is set in 1997 during the week surrounding the death of Princess Diana. As the movie opens, Great Britain has just elected a prime minister, the youthful, optimistic Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). The nation is abuzz about Blair, but in Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) doesn’t appear to be fazed by the young minister’s arrival. After dealing with nine Prime Ministers over the decades, her first being Winston Churchill, it’s hard to blame her for her blasé attitude.
Then again, on the surface, Her Majesty doesn’t appear to be fazed by anything (such is the case when you are the representative of a country). But when Diana–her son’s ex-wife and the mother of her grandchildren–is killed in a tragic car accident in Paris, her authority-and public image of a stiff upper lip-is put to the test. While the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) and Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip (James Cromwell), agree with her decision to remain at their holiday estate in Balmoral and not publicly acknowledge the tragedy, Blair and the people of England feel differently. Making matters worse is the British Media, which has begun to castigate the queen for her silence. In order to retain her grip on the country that she has served for so many years, she must swallow her pride and let the world know that she does, in fact, care.
A majority of the praise and awards heaped upon The Queen at the end of 2006 was for Helen Mirren’s performance, and rightfully so. Her turn as Elizabeth II is not one of mere impersonation and moments of scene-chewing high drama that usually accompanies most award-winning turns based on real people. It is a quiet and multi-layered performance in possession of dignity, anger, a sharp wit, repressed sorrow and most importantly, humanity. Whether the actions portrayed by Mirren are an accurate reflection of how Queen Elizabeth is in private and acted during the week of Diana’s death is known only to one person, who has publicly stated that she will not see the film. But it can be said that thanks to this remarkable performance, we can finally see a once elusive head of state as a human being like the rest of us commoners.
But the glories of this film lay in much more than just a single performance. The Queen is one of those rare instances where a production doesn’t take a wrong step or hit a false note. Backed by a remarkable music score by Alexandre Desplat (my personal favorite of 2006), Frears beautifully handles Peter Morgan’s sharp, incisive screenplay which takes England’s period of mourning for Diana back in late summer of 1997 and uses it to smartly examine the clash between the traditionalism of the Royals and the modernist ideas embodied by the young, idealistic Blair and the nation’s population. Frears and Morgan do so not with grandstanding, stereotyping or emotional manipulation, but with welcome bits of humor, remarkable detail and quiet, respectful and moving drama. And while the two perfectly encapsulate that period of time, they also manage to make the events pertinent to Blair’s unfortunate present-day situation through three short, unforgettable lines of dialogue at the end of the film (sorry, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out what those are) without making it stick out like a sore thumb.
For me, Stephen Frears has been a director who has been hit or miss with his work. The Queen definitely falls into the former. He handles the film’s myriad themes and moves the story along with such a professional hand that he makes it all seem effortless. In a career that can certainly be termed eclectic, Frears” work on this film is definitely his finest hour.
As I mentioned before, Mirren received the lion’s share of the praise when it came to the acting in this film. I think it should be noted that while her work-and the film itself-would still have been very impressive, it certainly would not have been as brilliant as it turned out had someone other than Michael Sheen had played Tony Blair. The entire cast is quite good (Cromwell is great as Prince Philip and Syms makes for a very droll Queen Mother), but Sheen’s work is the key ingredient to strengthening Mirren’s performance. He gives us a Blair who is very easy to empathize with, perfectly conveying the new Minister’s range of emotions in his attempt to helping the initially clueless Royal Family shun their icy public faÃ§ade to connect with their people in a time of national tragedy. Like Mirren, Sheen gives us a performance that is more than just a mere impression of a famous public figure.
The Blu-ray edition of The Queen is given a picture/audio presentation fit for royalty, even if the extras are fit more for a Prime Minister. The film is given a VC-1/1080p (1.78:1 approximate ratio) encode, and it looks fantastic. To contrast the worlds of the Queen and Blair, Frears and the film’s cinematographer Affonso Beato shot the movie using two film stocks: standard 35mm for the Royals and 16mm for the commoners. The scenes dealing with Blair and his family are grainy (deliberately so), and give off somewhat crude but not distracting colors. On the other hand, the ones with Elizabeth and the Royal Family are beautiful, with colors that practically pop off the screen and feature detail as sharp as the wit that peppers the film’s script. In all instances, the transfer is handled with great care. Buena Vista Home Entertainment has been delivering one great high-def transfer after another, and this film is no exception. This is a transfer worthy of comparison to their recent releases of The Prestige and Chicago.
Two terms describe the audio tracks on the Blu-ray of The Queen: smooth and full. Of course, you’re not going to demo your home theater audio setup with this movie, but that also doesn’t mean that it doesn’t impress. Be it the uncompressed 5.1 PCM audio track or the 5.1 English Dolby Digital track, the dialogue comes across as clear as a bell and the music score pops in quite effectively when needed. The PCM has the edge, giving the viewer a bit more of an impact, but it doesn’t quite put the Dolby Digital track to shame. Bass and surround effects on both tracks are understandably sparse.
There are three bonus supplements to be found on the home video edition of this film (the regular DVD and the Blu-ray are in possession of the same bonus materials). While I would have liked to have seen a bit more in terms of documentaries on the Royal Family themselves, the material found here is quite informative and worth checking out.
There are two Feature-Length Audio Commentary tracks that cover quite a lot of ground, with one going a long way to compensating for my wanting of a documentary on the Royal Family. Yack track one is with director Frears and writer Morgan and it is your standard “behind the scenes” commentary, giving us production stories and tidbits on the Royals. Frears and Morgan are interesting to listen to, but the real winner here is the second commentary track by British Historian and Royal Expert Robert Lacey. Lacey served as a technical consultant on the film, and listening to his commentary track, it is easy to see why. He fills his audio track with so many details about the Royals and does it so quickly, that you may need to backtrack a bit to fully take in all he has to say. This is a very informative and very worthwhile supplement.
Rounding out the extra material is a twenty-minute mini-documentary entitled The Making of the Queen. With no banal voiceover to be had, it’s not presented like your usual “making of” doc, which is nice change of pace. A simple title card pops up at the beginning of each short section, followed by interview bits with the cast and crew. Because I was drawn into what they had to say, I wish that it had gone on for a little bit longer than twenty minutes. But then again, there are the two commentary tracks to satisfy that.
Every year, there are one or two films that I just don’t get around to seeing until after the first of the following year that would easily have gone on my top ten list (unless you review films full time, it’s almost impossible to see everything when it first comes out). Along with Pan’s Labyrinth, The Queen is a 2006 release that I didn’t catch until early 2007 that would have made my “06 list without question, so much so that it probably would have wound up as my #2 or 3 favorite of the year. It’s a perfect combination of expert directing, incisive, involving storytelling and superb acting that restores a film fan’s faith in quality filmmaking. Believe the hype: the film is awesome, and the Blu-ray release is equally worthy of high praise.
– Shawn Fitzgerald