History isn't supposed to repeat itself so quickly, but George W. Bush's tardy response last year to Katrina's devastation of the Gulf Coast echoed almost exactly the lethargy that enveloped the Royal Family of Britain eight years before, in the days following the car crash that killed Princess Diana. Like Bush in Crawford, the Queen stayed holed up in Balmoral, her country estate in Scotland, while her subjects, shocked by the violent death of the blond goddess whose flaws they cherished as much as her charms, sobbed their hearts out. Strange, isn't it, how the powerful get short-circuited from their power base. Too often, people whose job it is to lead by listening have the tendency to go politically deaf in times of crisis to proceed as if nothing had happened, to sleepwalk in a state of bland or numb denial.
That, anyway, is the proposition of The Queen, an immensely entertaining and seemingly acute chronicle of the week Diana died, as dramatized through the very different reactions of stern, befogged Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and of Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who was keenly attuned to public sentiment and how to manipulate it. The film, written by Peter Morton and directed by Stephen Frears (best known for Dangerous Liaisons), won the screenplay and actress prizes at Venice this month. Friday The Queen helps launch the 44th New York Film Festival before opening in selected cities.
The movie's patina of textual and textural accuracy comes from voluminous research by the BBC Films team, including interviews with Windsor insiders, a chatty crowd. Elizabeth might be expected to run a tight ship with tight lips; but because royal scandal is a marketable commodity and the tabloid press voracious and rapacious, Buckingham Palace regularly springs more leaks than the Titanic. So you may take it as gossip gospel that Princess Margaret made the ungenerous observation quoted in the film that Diana was even "more irritating dead than alive." Morton also did a lot of asking around, and people answered. He says, for example, that he based scenes of the Prince of Wales' reaction to the crash on having talked "to someone who spoke to Prince Charles on the night of Diana's death."