And yet the central presence of Tony Blair – played here with usual precision by Michael Sheen, who starred in Frears and Morgan’s earlier TV collaboration, ‘The Deal’ – makes ‘The Queen’ more than just a period piece about skewed royal values and mass mourning. The death of Diana coincided with the birth of an elected New Labour, and it’s this event, Blair’s political ascension on May 1 1997, that opens the film. ‘The Queen’ is as much a film about the New Labour project and its values as the sleeve-pulling which Blair inflicted on the Queen to persuade her to acknowledge the overwhelming public response to Diana’s death.
It’s that same sleeve-pulling that offers the dramatic nexus of Frears’ film, which contends that Blair phoned the Queen three times before she agreed to fly the Royal Standard at half-mast over Buckingham Palace or make a television broadcast in which she expressed her feelings ‘as a grandmother’. We’re party to these backroom wranglings, which offer a cheeky thrill simply because the film dares to venture where only satire such as ‘Spitting Image’ or poorly realised TV drama such as ‘The Queen’s Sisters’ or ‘Whatever Love Means’ have before. The flipping between Downing Street and Balmoral offers some amusing cultural contrasts. Witness Blair talking to the Queen while wearing a Newcastle Utd football shirt. Or their preferences for phones; Blair plumps for a cream cordless handheld while HRH opts for a murky green Bakelite. This is a play about the struggle for modernity. The Queen can’t understand how her ‘people’ could be grieving, while Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) talks to Blair about the need for ‘a more modern perspective’. Morgan finds similarities between the camps too. In particular, he draws a neat parallel between Blair and Charles and their instincts for self-preservation.
Morgan’s dramatic agenda is bold and imaginative – no ‘if it ain’t known, it ain’t going in’ approach to historical screenwriting for him. He confirms this early on by presenting an intimate event to which no researcher could attest: Blair’s first audience with the Queen. The PM-elect kneels at her feet and asks permission to form a government; the Queen, in turn, points out that it’s her who asks the questions. In contrast with such intimacy, news footage roots the film in the real and also reminds us of our own, complicit seat in the stalls.
It’s a film of delicious performances and great wit. Helen Mirren – supported by a terrifying hair-do – leads an impressive cast, and Frears draws wry humour from the domestic arrangements of the Queen and the PM. A dry comedy seeps through the cracks of Morgan’s cautious, conspiracy-free script in which side-players reflect different elements of the main protagonists’ personalities. Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley) manhandles Blair (‘The People’s Princess, mate? You owe me!’); and Prince Philip (James Cromwell) is a Neanderthal voice in the Queen’s ear (he describes the guests at Diana’s funeral as ‘a chorus line of soap stars and homosexuals!’). Lèse majesté indeed!