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The Tony Blair Trilogy Part II: The Queen

I saw and enjoyed The Queen when it was released back in 2006, but I had never seen the other two films that Peter Morgan had written about Tony Blair (all of which featured Michael Sheen as Mr. Blair, and the first two of which were directed by Stephen Frears).  Last spring I watched The Deal (click here for my review), and so then I thought it would be fun to re-watch The Queen before moving on to The Special Relationship.  I didn’t think it would take me quite so many months before I had a chance to watch The Queen, but, well, sometimes life gets in the way!

The Queen is set in 1997, in the months following Tony Blair’s election as Prime Minister of England, as well as the death of Princess Diana on August 31, 1997.  While Mr. Sheen as Tony Blair was the focus of The Deal, in many ways Tony Blair is even more front-and-center here in The Queen.  We spend quite a lot of time with this neophyte prime minister, watching him attempt to acclimate to the new high office to which he as been elected.  And yet, the film’s title The Queen is very appropriate, because this film isn’t really about Tony Blair at all.  It is about Queen Elizabeth II.

An investigation into this enigmatic figure — known the world-wide, yet someone so separated from the common folk by her power and position that few outside the royal family could say to know her — would of course be an interesting focus for a film.  But what makes The Queen so clever is the decision to investigate and explore the character of the Queen through the character of Tony Blair.  At the start of the film, Mr. Blair meets the Queen in-person for the first time, and we the audience meet her as well, seeing her through Mr. Blair’s eyes.  The pomp and circumstance surrounding the Queen, the incredibly detailed protocol that governs every interaction with her, is introduced to Mr. Blair and the audience at the same time.  As the film progresses, we grow to know and perhaps to understand her just as Mr. Blair does.  There’s a key moment late in the film in which Mr. Blair gets angry at his staff for their comments about the Queen.  In that moment in which he shows some sympathy and understanding for this woman, so too do we the audience feel that.  It’s an incredibly clever and effective way to structure the story being told.

I can’t really speak to whether anything that we see of the Queen, and the interactions of the other members of the Royal Family, have any basis in fact.  But the film feels real, a testament to the strong writing and performances, and this lends effectiveness to the film’s story.  I will let others judge its merits as a piece of investigative journalism, but as a film this works like gangbusters.  I was surprised by the degree of sympathy and nuance that Mr. Frears and his team brought to this depiction of Elizabeth II.  This is a public figure it’d have been far easier to mock or ridicule, but Mr. Morgan and Mr. Frears have something far more subtle in mind.

It’s all headlined by Helen Mirren’s exquisite work as Queen Elizabeth II.  Ms. Mirren is an amazing actress with decades of fine work behind her, but this is unquestionably one of her best roles.  There aren’t really any big speeches in this film, no scenery-chewing Hollywood moments.  Ms. Mirren’s work is restrained and subtle, as befitting the character she was portraying.  And yet her quiet, understated work contains oceans of depth and emotion.  This is how a real actor does it, ladies and gentlemen.  Ms. Mirren doesn’t need any dramatic, showboating moments to let us in to this character.  She’s aided by a smart script that makes all the right choices, but in the hands of a lesser performance this would all nevertheless crumble.

Martin Sheen is every bit her equal as Tony Blair.  As with Ms. Mirren, this role was perfectly cast, and Mr. Sheen takes his already strong-work in the role from The Deal and takes it to the next level.  I love Tony Blair in this film, and I can only wish and hope that the real politician was anything like this young, noble, charismatic public servant.  The Queen lets us know and connect with Elizabeth II, but it’s an even more heroic portrayal of Tony Blair.  Here again, I don’t feel hugely confident in arguing the accuracies or inaccuracies of this portrayal.  But for the role as written, Mr. Sheen is absolutely perfect.  He is the audience’s way into this story, but he never lets his character become just a plot-point.  The arc of Mr. Sheen’s feelings about the Queen is the arc of the film, and Mr. Sheen takes the audience along with him at every moment.

The rest of the supporting cast is very solid, with special praise that must be reserved for James Cromwell, who is a crotchety riot as Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip.

Peter Morgan and Stephen Frears have refined their collaboration to craft a very fine film indeed.  The Queen is a wonderful piece of filmmaking.  I am eager to move on to the third film written by Mr. Morgan that features Michael Sheen as Tony Blair: the HBO movie The Special Relationship.  Hopefully it won’t take me another year to get to it!!

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