When you look at the films that are nominated for Best Picture this year, they all seem to be quite different: Babel is large-scale with an international cast and large international themes, Letters from Iwo Jima is a war film, Little Miss Sunshine is a dysfunctional family comedy, The Departed is a crime/gangster thriller and The Queen is a quiet character study.
A quiet character study gets nominated for Best Picture? Seems a little strange…. But if you look a little closer and if you really look at this film, The Queen is more than a character study. It is a study of a people, of an entire country and of that country’s roots, heritage, history, and essence.
What’s fascinating to me about The Queen is its ability to captivate an audience. It never ceases to amaze me sometimes how the quietest films, the ones with seemingly the least going on are the ones that have the most mesmerized audiences. How do they do it? Well, in the case of The Queen, it starts with a compelling character, Queen Elizabeth II, forced into dealing with an extraordinary circumstance, here the sudden death of arguably the most popular royal figure ever, Princess Diana, and played by one of the world’s greatest actresses, Helen Mirren, who completely disappears into the role (and who will most assuredly win the Oscar for Best Actress).
What takes The Queen beyond just the brilliant performance of Helen Mirren and makes it a complete film is the world it builds around Queen Elizabeth. In order to believe the character, the audience must believe the world she inhabits. This film is so complete in every detail, from the costumes to the art direction to the locales to even her beloved dogs. We are enveloped in the Queen’s world so completely that we almost can relate to her and understand her. Almost.
The famous royal detachment is perhaps the key plot point of this film and Mirren’s real challenge was to portray the Queen as a human being AND as the monarch with the weight of centuries of tradition and pomp and circumstance on her shoulders. There are just the way things are done, you know—not just anyone can be a British monarch. This world is such a peculiar one, and this film captures it with such quiet reverence yet also a real sense of honesty.
But what makes this film really strong is its utter lack of sensationalism and the personal approach it takes to the larger-than-life events surrounding the death of Princess Diana. The events surrounding her death are neither glossed over or trivialized nor brought to the forefront of the film. They are presented just enough to serve as what they are, a plot point. The filmmakers aren’t stupid enough to think the world doesn’t know about Diana and her death and they don’t need to spend needless time belittling us with tabloid details of what happened and “what did Queen Elizabeth really think of Diana?” What makes this film so good is all the directions it could have gone in and didn’t. Instead it stays on course and never wavers from being what it is, which is an examination of this woman’s character and how she maintains her dignity through one of the most challenging times of her monarchy and perhaps the history of the most famous monarchy in the history of the world.
Helen Mirren’s performance as Queen Elizabeth II is by far the essence of this film and the main reason the film is so good. She completely disappears into the role and totally becomes the Queen. The talk, the walk, the behaviors, the nuances, everything that we think we know, we see. She IS Queen Elizabeth II.
The supporting cast is terrific as well. Michael Sheen plays Tony Blair with humor and compassion and James Cromwell is perfectly prickly as the heartless Prince Philip. Alex Jennings makes the most out of playing Prince Charles, but it’s such a difficult role to play without overdoing the characterizations.
It is interesting to note that the original score by Alexander Desplat is seeming to get a lot of attention and is the clear frontrunner to win the Oscar, yet I can’t for the life of me remember the music at all from this picture. Which either means the music fit perfectly into the film and was so seamless that I didn’t notice, or I was just clueless. Either way, if you have not seen the film yet, be sure to pay attention to the score because it is, apparently, brilliant.
The Queen may not be the loudest, boldest or the showiest of this year’s Oscar contenders, but it is definitely the most dignified.