The Royal Family: Inside Edition

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Dame Helen Mirren in The Queen

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Yet however accurate the portrait of the royals in The Queen, the first impression the movie gives is one of cool, devastating satire. Or perhaps Elizabeth and her family really are as drab as the film paints them! They don't aspire to glamour; they renounce it. Cloistered at Balmoral, knitting and nattering in their plain wool sweaters, caring more for their pets than for their children, the Royal Family seems a parody of the pettiness and insularity of the English middle class. They might be the extended clan of Wallace and Gromit or cousins of Mrs. Proposition and Mrs. Conclusion, the shrill suburban housewives from Monty Python's Flying Circus. It's as if the Windsors want to prove that although they're worth billions and practically define the term "idle rich," they share the tatty taste and myopic world-view of Britain's petty bourgeoisie. The grocer and the schoolteacher can look, not up to, but over at Elizabeth and think, "She's one of us."

That's wishful thinking. Elizabeth has always struck me as a crabby soul. Her job is, essentially, to smile in public, yet she's never been good at it. The grin seems more a grimace, as if she grudges the effort it takes to move those facial muscles. If warmth and beauty are requisites of regality, she's flunked the test. Perhaps because of the coldness I sense in Elizabeth, I've often felt a sympathy for Charles, whom I'm guessing didn't get a lot of it at home. He works so hard at the game of ingratiation, and he's waited so long for the position he was born to, that even his gaffes appeal to me. That indiscreet love chat with Camilla Parker-Bowles — his wish that he could be her tampon — had the clumsy tenderness of a man not schooled in seduction but enslaved to it.

As it happens, my prejudices or insights are seconded by The Queen. Charles (played with a dense delicacy by Alex Jennings) is the one member of the family immediately and deeply stricken by the news of Diana's death. He grieves for her, as his parents first refuse his request to go to Paris to identify the body then suggest he get there not on the royal jet but by connecting commercial flights. When the others attack Diana's skills as a mother, Charles makes pointed remarks about the love she showered on her two sons, unlike his own mother. (Now, now, Corliss, give Elizabeth her due: she has trained her dogs beautifully, perhaps because she's shown them more attention and affection.)

Charles is also the one, as the public's demonstration of grief for Diana is mixed with attacks on the Crown, who asks aloud, "Why do they hate us?" Well, one reason is that the press has stoked antimonarchical feelings in readers who might otherwise blame the paparazzi posse on motorcycles that helped speed Diana to her doom. Another is that, having elevated Diana to heroine status even before her death, people needed villains, and her ex-in-laws were right out of central casting. Among hundreds of signs attached to flowers at the impromptu Diana memorial outside Buckingham Palace were ones that read, "They have your blood on their hands," and "They don't deserve you."

In the first days after the death, you see, the royals choose to do nothing, issue no statement, betray no emotions. To them, the interviews that Diana gave, in which she complained of her isolation from the family, were breaches of domestic trust bordering on treason. (Diana is seen only in news footage, and the film weaves some of these TV clips into the action.) Elizabeth figures a terse silence is best — best for a discreet monarchy and best for the boys, Harry and Andrew. Prince Philip (a slyly ruthless, bullying performance by James Cromwell) wants to take the lads hunting. Right: nothing'll take their mind off death like going out and killing something.

Enter Blair, who had been swept into 10 Downing Street in a landslide a few months before. Incorrigibly cheerful and gently manipulative, he keeps telling the Queen that a condoling word or two might be in order. Only then does she realize with a shock that she was not the most beloved woman in Britain. Blair has to slap the royals awake to recognize the intensity of the nation's grief and Elizabeth's need to display some herself. Blair, who has a mother about the Queen's age, becomes the son Elizabeth never had: the one she listens to.

After about an hour of wickedly acute satire, the movie shifts its focus to find the pathos behind Elizabeth's hooded gaze. As incarnated by Mirren, the least sentimental of great actresses, the Queen might be any aging executive, devastated by the insight that her reign has been endured but not embraced. Or any mother who mistakenly took for granted that she would be loved as well as obeyed. Mirren, who won a Tony playing Elizabeth I for HBO, may well deserve an Oscar for this ripe appraisal of Elizabeth II. Her performance shows how an aging monarch can both acknowledge her diminished status and act to correct it.

As BBC viewers know, Morton and Frears have created a niche industry in Tony Blair docudramas. The first, The Deal in 2003, was about the agreement between Blair (played there as well by Sheen) and Gordon Brown that birthed the New Labour Party. That was a TV film; The Queen was made for movie theaters. I hope it finds a wide and receptive audience — for beyond the tattle, it tells a parable of political wisdom: knowing when to listen to the people, and when to lead them.

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