Very good monarchs must surely dislike innovation, if only to acknowledge the fact that innovation must surely dislike them. It may be said that Queen Elizabeth II has been especially skilled in this respect, having fought every day since her coronation on June 2, 1953, to oppose any sort of change in the habits of tradition and to preserve the British monarchy from the encroaching vulgarity of public feeling.
When people say they love the Queen that is often what they love—her stoical, unyielding passivity—and one has to look to Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, to find a monarch who might match her, and even beat her, as an idol of intransigence. “The Queen is most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of ‘Woman’s Rights,'” wrote Victoria in her journals, “with all its attendant horrors on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety.” Victoria always had the habit of expressing her views in the third person, and the above was written in 1870, a year, it might help us to remember, when everyday British women were just being allowed by law, for the first time, to keep the money they earned. Being in touch with one’s subjects, female or otherwise, was not seen to be a very necessary part of the job back then, and it might stand as one of the more limpid ironies of monarchy that the sovereigns who are most out of touch are usually the ones most loved.
Nevertheless, one might pity the present Queen. Where Victoria only had women’s suffrage and Charles Darwin to rub up against, poor Elizabeth had Princess Diana, and there we entered a whole new phase in the life of an endangered species. There was always a question about how far Queen Elizabeth could go in the twentieth century without coming a cropper due to new waves of populism gone awry, and in Diana Spencer she met the near-hysterical embodiment of that tendency. In her famous Panorama interview with Martin Bashir in 1995, the one where she outed her husband as an adulterer, Diana looked down the television lens as if she were looking through the sights of an automatic weapon. Here are some examples of how she spoke in that interview about her role within “The Firm”:
DIANA: I remember when I used to sit on hospital beds and hold people’s hands, people used to be sort of shocked because they said they’d never seen this before, and to me it was quite a normal thing to do. And when I saw the reassurance that an action like that gave, I did it everywhere, and will always do that.
BASHIR: What was the family’s reaction to your post-natal depression?
DIANA: Well maybe I was the first person ever to be in this family who ever had a depression or was ever openly tearful. And obviously that was daunting, because if you’ve never seen it before how do you support it?…
BASHIR: What did you actually do?
DIANA: Well, I just hurt my arms and my legs; and I work in environments now where I see women doing similar things and I’m able to understand completely where they’re coming from….
BASHIR: Once the separation had occurred, moving to 1993, what happened during that period?
DIANA: People’s agendas changed overnight. I was now separated wife of the Prince of Wales, I was a problem, I was a liability (seen as), and “how are we going to deal with her? This hasn’t happened before.”
BASHIR: Who was asking those questions?
DIANA: People around me, people in this environment, and…
BASHIR: The royal household?
DIANA: People in my environment, yes, yes.
BASHIR: And they began to see you as a problem?
DIANA: Yes, very much so, uh, uh.
BASHIR: How did that show itself?
DIANA: By visits abroad being blocked, by things that had come naturally my way being stopped, letters going, that got lost, and various things.
BASHIR: So despite the fact that your interest was always to continue with your duties, you found that your duties were being held from you?
DIANA: Yes. Everything changed after we separated, and life became very difficult then for me.
BASHIR: Who was behind that change?
DIANA: Well, my husband’s side were very busy stopping me.
Obviously, the elder royals and their familiars had completely missed out on the Oprahization of the universe. If they hadn’t, they might have learned the new first rule of successful leadership: enjoy your inscrutability if you must, but don’t ever stand in the way of a confessional heroine. If stopping Diana was something of a thankless task while she was alive, the effort would come to seem suicidal for the British monarchy in the summer of 1997, after Diana died in that Paris tunnel. William Shakespeare himself could scarcely have imagined, in the days after the crash, a royal household with more out-of-touch advisers than the Windsors had on twenty-four-hour call, each of them sharing a gigantic unawareness of the difference between a pest and a mass phenomenon. But it is said that much of the intransigence was coming from the Queen herself, who, despite all her experience, disported herself that summer like a person lumbering in a dark cave. She was somehow unable to see what the infants and the dogs in the street could see, that the old style was unsuited to the virulent new mood—and that if something had to give, or someone, it was most likely going to be the woman whose head appears ready-severed on Britain’s postage stamps.
The English director Stephen Frears’s account of that summer, The Queen (starring Helen Mirren as the unheeding head of the afflicted nation), offers a modern history play no less entertaining than it is unsettling. It may say something wild about present times that the gravest constitutional business can best be played out as situation comedy, but there are enough laughs in The Queen to make you think so. If one chose two dysfunctional families struggling with image problems, big appetites, and tearful neighbors, it would be difficult to slide a cigarette paper between the Windsors and the Simpsons, yet Frears’s movie pays Britain’s first family the supreme compliment of taking it seriously, and it’s hard not to feel that the results will enjoy a long and fruitful reign in the affections of moviegoers.
We first discover Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) cheesy-smiling his way into Buckingham Palace fresh from an electoral landslide. As is customary when seeking the Queen’s permission to form a government, the prime minister goes down on one knee and listens to the Queen’s invitation, though the first of many boons in Peter Morgan’s script shows Blair getting in first with the words and generally doing a schoolboy’s impression of a powerful man, which is exactly right. “In the end, all Labour prime ministers go gaga for the Queen,” says his wife Cherie (Helen McCrory), who, when called upon to curtsy before Her Majesty, barely manages a resentful, crooked-heeled half-dip. We quickly see that Frears and Morgan will place Tony Blair at the dead center of the piece, a decision that not only honors the facts but focuses one’s attention on the real subject of the film: the sudden needs of the British people and their fin-de-siècle emotionalism. The real Tony Blair—at least the chipper, Bambi-like, pre-Iraq Tony—understood this fairly recent and fairly shocking aspect of Britishness as well as Diana did (his every other move seemed to say “I feel your pain”), and the lack of that understanding on the part of the British monarchy gives the film its drama, just as it gave King Tony the orb and scepter for a fortnight.
Helen Mirren has the Queen down to a T: everything, from the slightly bowlegged, corgi-perturbed walk to the schoolmarmish fussiness over gloves and pens and handbags. It may take a brilliant actress to play a brilliant actress, and Mirren allows one to feel that Queen Elizabeth II harbors no little innocence about the worlds that are rumored to exist beyond her role. Though her hair is always primped and her tweeds immaculate, Mirren’s Queen can barely hide the extent to which her life of service has come to seem an affliction. And when news comes in the night, to her bedroom at Balmoral, of Diana’s death, it is obvious from the tiny, near-invisible mechanics of Mirren’s performance that the sovereign might be clinging to a narrow understanding of duty as a way of expressing both her anger at Diana and her copious reluctance to learn anything new about the world.
Stuck in the Scottish Highlands with a bunch of stag-hunting yes-men, the Queen watches on TV as the London palaces are islanded in flowers. They think it will pass in a jiffy—that the people will return to their senses—but Blair comes on the phone with the news that Her Majesty’s people need her in their time of grief. “Their grief!” she exclaims, seeing Blair as both a public-opinion-mongering idiot as well as a quisling lawyer too full of himself to comprehend the weight of history. Despite the tabloid headlines, she refuses to return to London and denies permission for the ensign at Buckingham Palace to be flown at half-mast. (The objection being that even the Queen herself, when dead, would not be afforded this honor.) Invariably standing behind her at such times is her husband Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (James Cromwell), whose bumbling, ossified attitudes could easily, any day of the week, make Lady Macbeth look like Coretta Scott King. Even the Queen looks modern next to him.
The Queen Mother is just baffled by developments, and Frears shows her sipping from a tumbler of gin as a shadow falls for the first time on her daughter’s seamless reign. “You are the greatest asset this institution has,” she says. “One of the greatest it has ever had.” Prince Charles, meanwhile, played with broken, ashen-faced confusion by Alex Jennings, secretly drinks of the New Labour cup, knowing, or feeling in the midst of panic, that it must contain the elixir that will enable him to survive his late wife’s popularity, her revolution of flowers.
Blair got it right from the first. It may, as the film shows, have been his vicious henchman Alastair Campbell who invented the phrase “the people’s princess,” but Blair’s deployment of it the morning after Diana’s death, and his clearly heartfelt chiming with the nation’s feelings, made him come to seem like the Queen’s only hope. Against all the instincts of her breeding, she finally came to London and addressed the people under a lowered flag, speaking, as New Labour wince-makingly suggested she should, “as your Queen and as a grandmother.” When it came to Diana’s funeral, and that medieval-seeming display of public grief, the Queen sat in Westminster Abbey looking much like a painted warhorse marching to new orders. “I think,” says Blair in the movie, “when you look back, you will see that this was actually a very good week for you.”
“And an even better one for you, Mr. Blair,” says Mirren’s Elizabeth at her most acidic.
Blair’s premiership was initially a throbbing pop concert of focus-grouping, news-spinning, rabble-rousing, and being “on message.” One of the beauties of The Queen is that it shows not only what the British sovereign had to learn from Mr. Blair but ultimately, and perhaps even more poignantly, what Mr. Blair had to learn from her. “Some day they will try to get rid of you,” she says to him, as he sits across from her at the end of that summer, trying in his Tonyish way not to gloat. “And quite suddenly.” This proves to be one of the film’s prophecies, and a great, crowd-pleasing joke—I saw the film both in London and in New York, and at each screening the audience burst into applause at this point. Why? Schadenfreude, I suppose. But also because Blair’s populism ultimately is no match for the Queen’s resilience: if he was a concert, she is a museum, and she has seen ten prime ministers come and go. Frears’s film persuades us that Blair might secretly have enjoyed his little stint at “saving the monarchy.” Yet as I write, it is King Tony who is standing on a cliff with the nation’s finger pressing on his back.
Elizabeth II’s run-in with the vox populi was, in the end, no real threat to her. As soon as she spoke to her people “as a grandmother” they seem to have felt both relieved and assuaged, as people sometimes do after an hour of chair-throwing on Jerry Springer. If Jonathan Swift were alive at that hour, he might have viewed it as a great, short battle between two kinds of silliness: the Queen’s anachronistic severity versus the people’s lachrymose self-indulgence. But Frears’s film succeeds by giving ample weight to both, and we end up feeling a little of the Queen’s pain, as her late daughter-in-law might have said.
Frears has always been good at showing the awkwardness of powerful people in their attempts to function as humanly as their circumstances will allow. Joe Orton, another sort of queen altogether, is changed by success and Frears’s film Prick Up Your Ears showed the horrible complications of allegiance in the person of his lover Kenneth Halliwell. Glenn Close, as the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, looks fit to claw her own face off when she discovers that she cannot be in control of the world’s affections as she would wish. Disappointment is at the core of The Queen, but we find that mere mortals, like great royals, can quickly forget disappointment, and that only politicians find it hard to escape the cruel judgment that it brings. At the end of The Queen it is Tony Blair who begins to look threatened: even in his moment of triumph, with the flags at half-mast, he seems to know that the populist forces he plays with can only eat him up.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Windsor knows her stuff. She knows that love is not love, which alters where it alteration finds, but she has the good royal instinct not to test the people’s love, so constancy is her muse, her plan, and her religion. Apart from that summer, and the small gestures she made to recognize the people’s lust for victimization, she has never moved an inch from her golden spot. The sea of indignation that swells within her might never show through her white face powder, and the people will be glad.
I remember that white face, in the spring of 1977. As schoolchildren in Scotland, we were drawn out of class one day to march in single file to a half-built highway at the edge of town. We were given Union Jacks and told when to wave them. It was the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. I know we waited a long time by the side of the road, but eventually a line of dark cars came along and slowed in front of us. Our teacher told us to wave and we waved. The cars stopped and a lady looked out from one of the windows. We all thought we caught her eye, and we said we did, but the Queen was obviously elsewhere, her lips smiling and her hand waving, though she didn’t see her audience and soon she was off to future engagements. “It must be great to be in a world of your own,” I said to Mrs. Wallace as we walked back to school. “It’s not her world,” she said. “It’s only her country. We just happen to live in it. And isn’t that nice?”