Bright Lights Film Journal

Uneasy Lies the Head: Stephen Frears’ The Queen

“Hovering between treason and tribute . . .”

Stephen Frears’ film The Queen starts with this quote from Henry V which announces that a whole Shakespearean drama is about to unfold. The monarch is challenged here not by a pretendant to the throne as of yore but by a media-fed populace crazed and mourning for a dead Princess. Queen Elizabeth herself (played brilliantly by Shakespearean actress Helen Mirren) is as cold and uncomprehending of “the people” as Corialanus before the Roman people. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister (Blair played by spitting-image Michael Sheen), whose vaulting ambition o’er leaps itself, is assisted by the spin of crafty and sinister Renaissance-style malcontent Alistair Campbell. Power is at stake just as in the ancient stories of the bard and above all the power that lies in a head — for this film shows that in the British constitutional monarchy, who heads the government is still a burning question. Uneasy lies the head indeed — in Frears’ film Elizabeth II in curlers barely gets a wink of sleep.

Combining Frears directing and Peter Morgan’s clever screenplay, The Queen may be a subtle plea for a British republic, but above all it is a fine political drama, remarkably acted and recounting one of the most extraordinary stories of our time: the public reaction to Diana’s untimely death, and the consequences on the British Royal Family.

Seamlessly mixing archival footage and fiction, Frears weaves a stunning diegesis. The colours of the film are rich and terribly British — the tartan on the Princes’ kilts, the gorgeous Landseer-like Scottish scenery, the Queen’s lavender and bottle-green outfits (though Royal watchers claim she is more likely to wear canary yellow), and the sea of flowers in front of Buckingham palace are upgraded from the pages of Hello Magazine to big-screen historical panorama. The docudrama, that maligned genre, has never looked so good.

The intramuros scenes in Buckingham Palace and Balmoral, apparently informed by solid research into real palace life, paint a not very sympathetic picture of an uptight, anachronistic royal family as much out of touch with their emotions as with their subjects. The portrayal of Prince Philip (tall and jaunty James Cromwell), whose reaction to the death of his grandchildren’s mother is to take the princes deer-stalking, is perhaps the most caricatural but also the most disturbing. Elizabeth is thankfully rather more responsible — but so undivided from tradition and protocol she is unable to engage with populism. This leaves a big gap open for Blair and his strategists to grab the limelight and pummel political mileage out of the Royal Family’s failures.

One of the most interesting sequences is the scene in the country where hunters display a slain deer, a symbol that becomes a central motif of the film. The Queen, who met the buck out in the glen, now contemplates its hanging headless corpse. Is this a reference to Diana? Elizabeth seems more troubled by the deer’s death than that of her daughter-in-law. Is it a reference to the cold cruelty that lies under the aristocratic stiff upper lip bubbling to the surface in their pursuit of blood sports? Or is this a premonition for the Queen? After all, the deer looked rather like Landseer’s “Monarch of the Glen” and now lies decapitated. Could this be the coming fate of another monarch we might just know?

For, yes, as many had forgotten before this film reminded us, the atmosphere after Diana’s death was vibrantly anti-monarchical (75 percent against the monarchy is a poll quoted in the film) and while a strong republican movement may not have arisen in the UK, the disaffection was there. Yes, this was the point where the impeccable Elizabeth II — not known to have ever made a single error in protocol, personal behaviour, or English grammar — felt she might actually lose it. She may never lose her actual head, but symbolically there is a shift in power. The Royal obstinence in staying out at Balmoral while London was weeping and mourning, it seems, was the sovereign’s tragic flaw.

With Frears’ film we see an articulation of what historian Ernst Kantorowisz called the “Two Bodies of the King.” One body is the personal, the real; the other is the sovereign’s position as corpus, representative of the people in a symbolic body. It is this sacralized, political body that is at stake — if anything, Diana’s body becomes more sacralized than the Queen’s through media representation. This is the modernity that challenges British tradition, and the film explores this shift. Helen Mirren’s Queen performs her functions perfectly and unemotionally, a task she sees as about being selfless — the state body is cold, formal, even hard. The Queen as person is another story — indeed it is only when she is totally alone that she gives way to her emotions and cries. In film terms we do see a character emerging and not just a caricature; in fact, some viewers claim to have fallen in love with Her Majesty. We know Sheen’s Blair does, moving into courtly mode; and in the end it is he who saves the Queen. (God must have been busy.)

Hovering between treason and tribute, Frears cuts a very fine line and gets away with it. In any case, if all the world’s a screen, even Queens and Princesses are merely players and even Prime Ministers and directors of communications ministers have their entrances and exits.