Even though I am a bit of an Anglophile, I still cannot get jazzed up over Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. Maybe I rebel against the fact that most of the English-speaking world seems to be reveling in her reign in the most banal and stereotypical ways: Union Jack sunglasses, Union Jack hats, Union Jack shirts, Union Jack anything you can think of. After all, nothing honors and recognizes the complicated and intense history of England and Great Britain like slapping a Union Jack on some lousy souvenir. Pointless displays of the national flag is an American tradition, and I do not know how I feel about the British stealing our thunder.
However, if you want to watch a film that actually does examine (recent) British history and Queen Elizabeth II’s reign as monarch, I recommend Stephen Frears’s wonderful The Queen (2006). The Queen does not sentimentalize, romanticize, or condemn. It examines. The film neither makes us like or dislike the Queen, but it does let us look at her as a human with a personal history, motivations, fears, desires, and limitations. She is neither better than us or worse than us. Frears’s terrific film shows her as one of us. No, we are not all royalty with massive wealth, but we make mistakes, try to take care of our families, and eventually (hopefully) recognize our failings. Sometimes we do this well, and sometimes we do not. Sort of like Queen Elizabeth II.
The film is blessedly not a biopic, a genre that grows more and more tired. Instead, The Queen relates the events that occurred shortly before and just after the sudden death of Princess Diana. The reaction by Queen Elizabeth II and the entire royal family nearly destroyed the monarchy. Narrowing in on this single episode is more enlightening than a tired, drawn-out life story.
The Queen succeeds above all else because of the singular and magnificent Helen Mirren, an enormous talent who defies age. I will not spend any more time attempting to describe her greatness. Anyone who needs convincing about the marvelousness of Mirren lies beyond any help that I can offer. And if you are already aware of her greatness (as you should be), then any words I write will be redundant.
While not in the same class as Mirren, Michael Sheen does an admiral job as former Primer Minister Tony Blair. The Tony Blair in this film was essentially tasked with being Queen Elizabeth II’s foil, and Frears does a masterful job of constantly comparing and contrasting the two individuals and their lives, values, and beliefs without delving into simple clichés. Scenes in which Queen Elizabeth II and Blair talk over the phone allow us to see sharp class distinctions and how social class informs and directs personal behavior.
And even if the gulf between Sheen and Mirren is as vast as the class difference between the Queen and the Prime Minister, Sheen is still a talent who has a wonderful knack for adroitly playing late twentieth century historical figures: Blair, David Frost, and Brian Clough. By the way, watch Sheen as Clough in The Damned United (2009), my favorite football film.
So view or re-view The Queen. Unlike the various news reports about and footage from the Diamond Jubilee, The Queen will actually entertain and inform.