Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) is feeling more triumphant than nervous as he goes to Buckingham Palace for the queen’s formal invitation to serve. He and his wife all but snicker as they consider the anachronism of royalty in the modern age.
And then he goes in to meet her (Helen Mirren) and finds that she is, surprisingly…regal. She may dress in the world’s most expensive dowdy cardigans and head scarves and have the hairdo of a grade school principal. But there is something about her that reminds him that the British are not citizens but subjects. It’s not just that she gently reminds him of her place in history by mentioning her connection to both Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill as she coaches him through the protocol. She has her place in history. But there is something about her that is far from an historic leftover, something vitally present today.
Both Blair and the queen will shortly have to think more carefully about where the royal family is on that continuum between tradition and relevance. Almost immediately after this meeting, the queen’s former daughter-in-law, Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a shocking automobile crash. She was no longer a member of the royal family, but she was the mother of the heir to the throne. She was also the most widely recognized woman in the world. The very traits and faults that made her such an embarrassment to the royal family were the touches of humanity that millions of people found endearing. She was sometimes foolish but always genuine and she indisputably loved her sons with great warmth.
To her former in-laws, this was one final embarrassing and excessive incident. There seemed no question about the way to respond. Diana was no longer an official member of the Royal family, and it would be handled as a private matter with no public statement or display of grief and certainly no state funeral. The queen and her family went to their estate in Scotland.
But Blair, as a politician, knew that the people wanted more, needed more. He made his own deeply sympathetic statement. This only sharpened the contrast with the royal family. As literally tons of floral tributes were piled up by sobbing Brits outside the deserted Buckingham Palace, Blair knew his first great challenge as Prime Minister was to ask the queen to break with tradition and make a public statement about her loss as queen and grandmother to two now-motherless boys.
The performances are impeccable. Mirren, always splendid (most recently in the far showier role of the earlier Queen Elizabeth for HBO), here gives a performance of breathtaking tenderness and delicacy in evoking the subtle and complex conflict of emotions felt by the queen, the woman, the daughter, the mother, the grandmother, the prisoner of history and the maker of history. At one point, she and a huge stag being hunted by Prince Philip stop and gaze at each other. They understand each other, and that moment helps us to understand her.
Queen Elizabeth must find a way to bridge the assumptions and rules of the times of Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill to those of the time of cell phones that beam photos around the world. Her ancestor Henry VIII split the church to get a divorce and her great-uncle abdicated the throne to marry a divorced woman, making her father the king and putting her next in line for the throne. Her sister was not allowed to marry the man he loved because he was “unsuitable” because he was divorced. So, she married a suitable man she did not love and herself became a divorced woman. Three of Queen Elizabeth’s children are divorced. Where are the other royal families? The children of the Grimaldis of Monaco have out-of-wedlock children. How can a monarch retain credibility in a world that now believes in meritocracy? All she had was history and mystery. Both are not worth what they once were. Like Blair, we are moved from skepticism to sympathy and ultimately to respect by the exquisite performances and a perceptive screenplay that manages to be thoughtful not just about politics and celebrity but family, loss, and destiny. Like the queen, we know that a stag’s mystery and majesty may be both the reason for its appeal and the reason it is seen as prey.
Parents should know that the movie has brief strong language and references to adultery and to the car crash that caused the deaths of the former Princess of Wales, Dodi Al-Fayed, and security man Henri Paul. There are references to hunting and dead animal carcasses are displayed. There are some tense and sad family moments.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Tony Blair changed his mind about the queen. What was the influence of her uncle’s abdication? Who in this story has your sympathy and why?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the BBC series House of Cards. And they will enjoy a very different story about a very different princess, Roman Holiday, from an era when both princesses and journalists had a different idea about honor and responsibility. They can read Tony Blair’s statement on Diana’s death Time Magazine’s coverage of Diana’s life is here. The official website of the Royal Family has a great deal of historical and biographical information.