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The Queen: Helen Mirren’s unsettling stasis and the British monarchy’s ‘second birth’

As The Queen turns 15, a throwback on Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning performance and how she seamlessly embodied the stoic British monarch.

Shreya Paul
Nov 17, 2021
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Courtesy of the multiple noted awards and nominations that Helen Mirren’s 2006 film The Queen received, most who weren’t familiar with the premise also got to know that the story follows Queen Elizabeth II in the contentious week after the demise of Princess Diana, the queen’s daughter-in-law and a royal celebrity.

Directed by Stephen Frears, the film spotlights the theories that claim Diana’s death was the precise juncture when the public turned against the UK's first family. From a sense of mistrust to mass criticism over the royal family’s alleged treatment of the princess, the nation had a new villain. A lot then rested on the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to reconcile a middle ground between the cries for modernity (that was represented by Diana) as opposed to staunch traditionalism (symbolised by the monarchy’s head, Elizabeth II). Frears’ lens sympathises with the stasis that came with the old, and criticises the mass hysteria and impassioned emotions associated with modernity. The film aims to also bring into focus how Elizabeth II complied with public opinion and embraced the negative press despite her better judgement.

The Queen, which may sometimes be criticised for aligning to royal sentiments, also ensures that it has a continuous cross-referencing strategy with newspaper clippings and articles, voiceovers, and television broadcast footage. The film depicts how global media sensationalised the death and consequently launched an investigative approach of looking at the Queen and her family. At its crux, The Queen underlines the tension between the chasm created by notions of the past and present. Referring to the essence of his labour of love, Frears had once said, “the film tells a symbolic story, because it says a lot about my country, which is divided between tradition and modernity.”

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Early on in the film, the filmmaker establishes the Queen as a public individual already straddling the lines of irrelevance. In a scene where Blair (played by Michael Sheen) and his wife Cherie (played by Helen McCrory) visit the sovereign for the first time, she comments about the statesmen, “She’s a little old lady living in the land that time forgot.” This is promptly followed by a montage of archived television footage that shows paparazzi following Diana on her public outings with her then-alleged paramour, Dodi Fayed. The contrast between this mobile frenzy encapsulating Diana’s vibrant public persona and the stagnancy of the queen is too obvious to bypass.

Princess Diana’s image transformation in the media has often been referred to as being “Hollywoodised”. On a closer look, The Queen highlights the zenith of obsession that masses reached around the unassuming presence of the woman who had now divorced Prince Charles.

Diana’s sartorial sense and physical agility, coupled with her affable nature stood as stark contrasts to Elizabeth II’s reserved dressing. Diana’s reinvigorating presence was thought to be the beacon of hope amidst an environment of inertia.

To this effect, Mirren’s perfect fit for Elizabeth II was no ordinary feat. At 60, Mirren was one of the few exceptions to the natural decline and decay that comes with age. Her real-life image was often splashed over the glossy pages of leading magazines like Vogue, Vanity Fair, People, Woman and Home and the like, where the actress was a significantly confident presence on photo shoots. Mirren’s casting as the queen then, lent an unavoidable appeal to the royal personality, even though Elizabeth II’s ‘casualness’ was strictly off-limits for the outside world. Overall, The Queen became a mouthpiece of ageing femininity with Elizabeth II and Helen Mirren’s personas woven together in a complex web that becomes symbiotic.

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Undoubtedly, Elizabeth II's source of power was her royal position as head of state. The proverbial ‘throne’ and its consequent privileges were too omnipotent for anyone to deny its role in shaping her person. Her ascension to the throne at a fairly young age of 25, was shrouded by hesitation, especially by the opinionated Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Not to mention, the added pressure of a female monarch hovered over her neck like an albatross. It is not unnatural then, that Elizabeth II frequently resorted to her royal status in order to maintain gravitas and wield influence in state matters. Frears recognises this and astutely places it against Diana’s honest confession to never wanting the status of ‘Queen’. An idyllic setup of the Balmoral grounds (known to be Elizabeth II’s favourite Summer palace) is rudely interrupted by recorded footage of Diana’s interview with Martin Bashir, which was broadcast for BBC in November 1995. Bashir’s steadfast voice booms across the screen with a single line, “Do you think you will even be Queen?” Diana’s answer is slow, shy and hindered. “No, I don’t. [pause] I’d like to be a Queen of people’s hearts.” The following scene depicts Elizabeth II, reclined on her bed (stripped of royal paraphernalia), watching the re-run of Diana’s ‘explosive’ interview.

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This acute oscillation between the two female figures in the film brings to focus the constant power struggle that the British monarchy was subjected to, with Diana’s proverbial ‘emancipation’. From a historical standpoint, the ‘Queen of Hearts’ interview catapulted the royal controversy to a whole new level, with global audiences getting front-row access into the protected lives of the British royalty. Diana’s mass appeal was bolstered through this exchange, and the royal PR realised that she was armed with ammunition to topple the entire monarchical setup. In another scene, when the royal parents discuss Charles’ (Alex Jennings) marriage to Diana, they reminisce ruefully about how enthusiastic they were of the union because she seemed a ‘nice girl’. This moment is immediately followed by Prince Philip’s (James Cromwell) confession that he thought “he’d [Charles] give the other one up” or “at least make sure his wife toed the line. Isn’t that what everyone does?” It is then that audiences understand what royal marriages entail and how different their moral orders are. However, an almost-insignificant eye flicker from the otherwise stoic Queen gives way to the unsettling emotion that brews within her about her own position within such skewed marital bonds. And yet again, Elizabeth II’s sheer vulnerability is at display, sans the armour of her royal stature.

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The Queen thus time and again delves into the dichotomy between monarchy/republicanism, traditionality/modernity and most importantly, youth/age. The film sutures these chasms through the two female figures and showcases a time when the British monarchy somehow managed to return from the brink of extinction.


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