The trouble with biopics — or movies based on real life incidents or characters in general — is that one keeps wondering how much of it is fact and how much is fiction. The good ones manage to create a world that is internally consistent and emotionally true, to the extent that we don’t care so much about the source material anymore.
In choosing to chronicle the goings-on in the British royal household in the aftermath of Diana’s death, The Queen treads a difficult path in some ways. Call it some kind of post-colonial hangover if you wish, but I find myself reacting to a biopic about a musician or a football player differently from that about Queen Elizabeth II.
It is to Helen Mirren’s credit, however, that from the very first moment she is on screen, she is The Queen. I have always loved her work, in movies like Gosford Park and especially in lightweight fare like Calendar Girls (the sort of comedy that only the Brits seem to know how to make). But this is easily the best thing I have seen her in.
The Queen is no doubt quite a compelling story, but when I think back on it, the scene I keep returning to is a quiet one in the countryside. The queen decides to take a drive through her estates in Balmoral one day. She refuses an escort and drives the vehicle herself. And while crossing a little stream, the car breaks down. So she calls for someone to come pick her up.
And while she waits there alone, a strong resourceful woman rendered temporarily helpless, the weight of the world seems to finally crash down upon her shoulders and she begins to sob. But then she notices a sound and sees a magnificient buck standing at a distance, staring at her. They eyeball each other for a few moments, then she hears the sound of hunters (probably including her huband) approaching in the distance and shoos it away.
For me, this scene is a masterpiece of construction. Firstly, it comes at a point when she is beginning to feel the stress of having to deal with public expectations that are entirely contrary to her beliefs. Diana is no longer a royal, and the only concern the royal family needs to have in the matter is the well-being of her and children. However, as the PM Tony Blair points out, the British public have their own way of deciding what the royal family should or shouldn’t be doing. You see the strain building slowly over the scenes preceding it, but her reactions are carefulyl schooled to express only what she wants the people around her to know.
By having her drive her own car, the director Stephen Frears first sets it up so that you begin to see her as her own person, as Elizabeth, and not just as the queen. That distinction allows us access to her feelings rather than just her behaviour. When the vehicle breaks down, she doesn’t just explain what has gone wrong with the car, but also reminds the person at the other end of the line that she used to be a mechanic during the War.
Now, while this is a nice piece of trivia, what purpose does it serve in that conversation? And then you realize that the line isn’t just meant as gentle rebuke to the man who thought that, as queen, she was unlikely to know what was wrong with her car. It is meant as a gentle rebuke to us, who have had the same implicit presumption all along.
The moment with the buck may be viewed simply as a diversion at that point, but it also sets up a later scene where she finds out that it has been hunted down in the neighbouring estate. (The occasioal snippet of conversation in earlier scenes establishes that there is more than one group trying to hunt it down.) A party of bankers or something, out for a weekend of sport.
She goes down to that estate to enquire and sees it hung from a hook. It is still magnificient. As though all death can do is gnaw away at the corners of its beauty, a little bit at a time. She asks the groundskeeper to convey her congratulations for the kill and walks away. Then she returns to London and makes her first concession to the public demands that she “express her grief in public”.
Now sit and think about what that episode with the buck is trying to tell you.
Queen Elizabeth II, as a mechanic during WWII