When an actor, even a brilliant one, decides to do a biopic and play a popular or recognisable person, the performance, though incredible, is often more of a caricature than a fair or accurate representation. This was put bluntly by David Frost when someone asked him to assess Michael Sheen’s version of himself in Frost/Nixon; “He’s not playing me, he’s playing a version of me.” Sometimes though, an actor or actress can embody the person they are playing to the point where you forget which actor it is you are watching. Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady is a perfect example. Bruno Gantz as Hitler in Downfall is another. Finally, and probably best of all, Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II.
Mirren doesn’t just blur the lines between Queen Elizabeth and herself but just seems to transform into the part. This isn’t the same woman who was in Arthur, messing about opposite Russell Brand. He mannerisms, voice and the way she just “carries herself” all perfectly match what you see of the British Queen when on the news. She does have an advantage though. The Queen isn’t a public person and only makes brief appearances and says very little. Mirren only has to go some way to convince us she is The Queen, our imagination and expectation does the rest. It also helps that this film’s events are set back in 1997 and Mirren is playing a younger version of Queen Elizabeth.
These become more apparent next to the other performances which are much more like caricatures of their intended characters. They all do a fairly good job of playing their real life counterparts but never actually convince. Whether intentionally or not, James Cromwell’s Prince Philip and Alex Jenning’s Prince Charles are more like comedic elements to the film than accurate representations. Michael Sheen had already played Tony Blair once in the thematic predecessor to this film, The Deal, and though he embodies the former Prime Minister brilliantly, it is never as convincing as the transformation Mirren manages to make.
The film is also helped by the brilliant story. The period in British history, the events surrounding the week of Princess Diana’s death, is filled with speculation, rumour and shocking news coverage, that you couldn’t help but make a decent film from the material. Its testament to both Stephen Frears as director and Peter Morgan as the film’s writer, that they manage to represent the absurdity of the week, both in the actions of the Royal Family and the public’s reaction, but never turns you against the Monarchy. Considering the film highlights The Queen’s lack of connection with the public and mishandling of the week’s events, you never feel she is the villain but instead, at times, take her side against the “golden boy” of the time Tony Blair.
The film is a subtle nod to the success and hardship that The Queen sometimes has to face. It doesn’t force the “monarchist” attitude down your throat or take a strictly republic stance either, but instead treads the line in the middle of those two views so the audience can make their own suggestions and carry their own opinions.
The film obviously takes liberties with conversations and events away from the public gaze. Though I’m sure the film was thoroughly researched before it was actually written and filmed, it does leave me wondering how accurate Mirren’s depiction of The Queen and the her family’s relationship is. This never seems more apparent when Prince Charles is depicted on-screen, resembling a bumbling, desperate idiot rather than the heir to the British throne.
Overall, a really well acted film, with an utterly flawless performance from Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II. The story itself is an interesting one, even though you are never quite sure how much is conjecture and how accurate events away from the public gaze would actually be. If Helen Mirren’s Queen is anything like the real Queen though, you can see why she has lasted so long on the throne.
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)