In The Queen, director Stephen Frears and writer Peter
Morgan pull back the curtain on the private chambers of the royal
family in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s 1997 death, where the very
ordered, self-contained world of Queen Elizabeth of England (Helen Mirren)
is brought into conflict with newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair
(Michael Sheen) and a nation looking to its leaders for guidance in
dark times. Along with its spate of Academy Award nominations, the
awards for the film poured in from all the country’s notable critics’
organizations, and deservedly included multiple honors for Mirren
and Sheen, as well as Morgan’s screenplay, the film’s superlative
costume and production design and Alexandre Desplat’s score.
On the surface, The Queen is about how the royal family dealt with Princess Diana’s death, and the frustrated advisory capacity in which a new prime minister served during those troubled times. But on a much larger scale it’s also a movie about values, about a moment in British culture where concepts like duty and tradition — as represented by the institution of the monarchy — clashed with more modern concepts like flexibility and, horror of horrors, informality. We see, though a very personal grappling with these issues, just how difficult and messy change can be — how we, as societies, can often go through long periods of stasis, only to then be snapped into dizzied-up outrage by a single, seemingly small event.
Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, Mrs. Henderson Presents, The Grifters) is a director who is able to smartly plumb comedy from drama, and vice versa, and The Queen radiates an intelligence and pulses with a multi-layered humanity rare in movies today. Morgan, meanwhile, crafted the narrative spine of The Queen from extensive interviews, research, discreet sources and informed imagination, and the result is revealing, satisfyingly dramatic and also just a lot of fun. Impeccably crafted, The Queen is indeed one of the best movies of last year.
Housed in a regular Amray case in turn stored in a cardboard slipcase that replicates its half-faced cover close-up shot of Mirren, The Queen is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. It’s easy to latch onto elements of graininess and edge enhancement early on, as well as in some darker scenes, but this is a result of varying film stocks, it turns out — 16mm for many of the scenes involving Blair scenes, compared to 35mm stock for the bulk of the movie. It rankles a bit at times, but actually feeds a sense of the contrast between Queen Elizabeth’s pristine, privileged world (she and her family pay no taxes, and live in a wonderland of luxurious, perpetual vacation) and that of the real world, in which Blair deals and his staff slaves.
The DVD’s audio comes in the form of an English language Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound track and a Spanish language Dolby surround track, with close-captioning and optional Spanish subtitles. Dialogue is clear and free from hiss or distortion, but overall seems mixed a bit on the low side compared to other recent
The DVD’s chief bonus extra is a somewhat perfunctory 19-minute making-of featurette which is split into three sections. Featuring interviews with Frears, Morgan, Mirren, Sheen, costar James Cromwell and others, the first segment focuses on the actors’ challenges of tackling real people as characters.The other segments concentrate on the design of the film and the real-life events of that week, a sort of historical primer that seems a bit redundant coming on the heels of the movie, which collapses this material just fine.
There are also a pair of feature-length audio commentary tracks — one from helmer Frears and writer Peter Morgan, and the other from author and British historian Robert Lacey. The filmmakers’ commentary showcases a nice, drolly chiding rapport between Frears and Morgan, but its loose-limbed nature also feels a bit at odds with the movie. In assaying which jokes worked best, they talk a bit about the gulf between intent and expectation, and their frequent surprise with the same. By contrast, Lacey’s track is a much more serious and streamlined chat, and includes an abundance of biographical information and shading detail, as well as Lacey’s opinion about what the filmmakers got spot-on right and what might have been a bit off, or benefited from dramatic license. It’s a fascinating listen, but in way one wishes you could have had Lacey sit with Frears, or at least Morgan, to dissect the scripting and research processes a bit more. One senses a more tricked-out edition of the film — perhaps with some feature-length inclusions on the royal family — somewhere further down the line, but for general audiences and less exacting DVD collectors, this edition works just fine. A (Movie) B- (Disc)