It was, with September 11, one of the two JFK shooting days of our generation. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news.
I was in Paul Brown’s car being driven from Opotiki back to university in Hamilton when the radio told us Princess Diana had been in a car crash, and her partner Dodi Al-Fayed had been killed. What if she died, we said. Whoa, that’d be big.
Then we got back to Student Village, someone told us she had.
The Queen is set around the time of Diana death, and focuses on its impact on the Royal Family. In particular, it looks at how Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) deals with an event which came closer than any other in centuries to turning Britain into a republic.
You may remember the bollocking the Royals got at the time, for failing to fly a flag at half mast above Buckingham Palace (it was against tradition) and for not publicly acknowledging the life of the Princess or the near-hysterical grief that swept Britain and much of the world. Instead, they stayed in their retreat in the Scottish Highlands, hunting and walking the dogs, comforting the young princes, while the outrage grew.
The only one who really seems to grasp the situation is the new Prime Minister, the bright, shiny, media savvy Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). However, the hidebound Royals treat him with a mixture of suspicion and contempt.
The Queen paints a tense, believable view of events. Save for Blair’s smarmy spin-doctor Alastair Campbell and the crusty Prince Phillip (James Cromwell), director Stephen Frears is sympathetic to his characters. The Royals are caught between maintaining centuries of tradition - the stiff upper lip and all that protocol - and having to put on a show of mourning for a woman who had waged a public relations war with them for years.
While it takes a little while get over the odd sensation of seeing still-prominent public figures played by actors in a serious film, the performances in The Queen are outstanding. Sheen is perhaps a bit too fresh-faced and humble as Blair, but it should be remembered that this was a time when he was seen as the best thing in the UK since The Beatles, before his image as a shallow, slick poodle of George Bush became established. He’s something of a hero here.
While Blair – and his wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) – are prominent in the film, it is Mirren who dominates it. Her performance has been showered with praise and awards, and justly so. She puts a warm and likeable face to a woman whose image is anything but, while does not stint on showing Elizabeth’s flaws, such as how out of touch with reality she was. This is Her Majesty behind the polite smile and little wave, who doubts, fears and even makes jokes.
With that superb performance, a witty and penetrating script and clever use of news footage, The Queen manages the difficult task of showing contemporary events without sensation or sentimentality, but still keeping them filled with emotion. Wonder of wonders, it even made this avowed republican feel a bit fond of the old dinosaur on our $20 note.