In 2003; actor Michael Sheen, director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan all worked together on a TV film called The Deal. Sheen starred as Tony Blair in the story of the future Prime Minister’s infamous deal with his eventual deputy Gordon Brown. Three years later Sheen reprised his role as Blair for another film, this time on the big screen, which again was directed by Frears and written by Morgan.
That film was The Queen, a dramatic account of the royal family’s reaction to the death of Princess Diana on the 31st August 1997. Although a lot of films I’ve watched so far have touched on modern history I can’t really relate to them as I have no recollection of the events. This isn’t true of most of what happened in The Queen as at the time I had a paper round and had to deliver the updated papers that carried the news of Diana’s death. Morgan’s script looks specifically at how the Royals wanted a private funeral whilst the general public instead wanted to mourn the woman that they’d taken to their hearts. In the middle was the newly elected Tony Blair who appreciated The Queen’s wishes but at the same time was keen to offer a sympathetic message himself. The famous ‘People’s Princess’ line is one of the many moments in the film that I remember seeing on TV at the time. Although at the same time I can’t remember the reaction to the royal silence being so bad that there were calls to abolish the monarchy all together. What I liked about Morgan’s script was the fact that neither Blair nor The Queen were portrayed as the villain of the piece. Both were doing what they thought was best and Blair in particular was eager to stick up for a woman who he had great respect for. Instead the evil forces were instead the members of the press who used the public grief to stir up outrage among the general public. The film’s finale is the hint that one day the same thing that happened to Queen Elizabeth in this film would happen to Blair himself. This was obviously a knowing line as Blair was suffering press scrutiny at the time of the film’s release and stepping down as Prime Minister soon after The Queen was released.
The fact that The Queen was co-produced by ITV studios suggests to me that the original plan was for it to be screened on the TV. There is in fact very little about The Queen that is particularly cinematic save a couple of nice shots of the Scottish countryside and an iconic shot of the monarch and a deer. My theory about why the film was eventually put on the big screen can be summed up in two words; Helen Mirren. Mirren’s performance as Queen Elizabeth was so fantastic that I’m sure someone quickly noticed that it would garner a multitude of awards if it was screened in cinemas. This notion is completely understandable as Mirren’s turn is one of the best Best Actress performances of all time and one that was destined to earn the star as many gongs as possible. Mirren’s skill is to totally convince us the audience that she is Queen Elizabeth and I think she pulls it off expertly. Not for one moment did I feel like I was watching Mirren on screen and felt she delivered a brave portrayal of a woman during a week in which she’d felt she’d lost everything. I wasn’t so convinced by the actors who were playing her other family members, most notably American star James Cromwell who appeared to be an odd casting choice as Prince Philip. Luckily Michael Sheen was on hand to deliver a similarly stellar performance as the ambitious yet thoughtful Prime Minister who was forced to make his first monumental decision. Just like Mirren, Sheen never lets his performance as Blair slip into caricature and as a result turns the Prime Minister into a three-dimensional character. The combination of Mirren and Sheen’s performances, Morgan’s measured script and Frears’ assured direction turns The Queen into an enjoyable factual drama. At the same time there was nothing particularly remarkable about it perhaps aside from the tour de force performance given by its lead actress.