Queen Elizabeth the Second (Helen Mirren) is having her portrait painted on the day that the United Kingdom goes to vote in their 1997 General Election, mentioning to the artist that she envies him in that she doesn't have the chance to express an opinion on who governs the coutry and must remain impartial. The next day, the previous Conservative government has been toppled by a landslide and Labour are in power for the first time since the late seventies, led by the new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). Blair promises to be a great moderniser, but the Queen doesn't believe much will change, unaware of the events to occur that August...
Screenwriter Peter Morgan has a preference for scripts about real life events, especially fairly recent history, and he had tackled Blair before in his television movie The Deal. This was a higher profile production, however, and went on to international success, winning an Oscar for Best Actress to put on Helen Mirren's mantlepiece. But there were many who viewed the film as as a jumped up TV movie that would have been better off as a Sunday night special, although in fairness actually the story was important enough for the big screen, even if it had been produced by Granada, a British television company.
There's an artificiality about seeing the cast impersonating more famous people here, not helped by seeing the real thing in the inevitable use of archive news footage as background and context. And a certain artistic licence must have been employed to flesh out the scenes of the Royals and government behind closed doors, so The Queen never loses that feeling of play acting, with the odd "shock" moment such as brusque plain speaking on the part of those depicted seeming calculated to add colour without much in the way of insight.
And yet, after a while you get used to watching the actors as the cast immerse themselves in their roles; you don't forget it's all staged and depsite the handheld camera you never think you're watching a documentary, but the themes Morgan brings out grow steadily more absorbing. The big event that he suggests was a turning point of Britain in the nineties is the death of Diana, the then-ex-Princess of Wales, in a Paris car crash apparently caused by being furiously chased by tabloid photographers at the time. Her boyfriend also died, and for a short time it looked as if the British public would finally turn against the press who had both fuelled and exploited the need of many of them to pry into every aspect of Diana's life.
However, the film points out, the media cleverly shifted the blame for the death onto the Royal family who had rejected Diana, and they became the focus for the public's resentment. That renowned reserve was looking out of place in a society that was more fame obsessed than ever, and now the Royals, the Government and even the Great British Public were cast as celebrities. As the Queen and those close to her feel that Diana is manipulating the media from beyond the grave, just as she had pulled those strings when she was alive, the film becomes claustrophobic. The Windsors opt to stay away from the furore in Balmoral, but Blair realises they're making the wrong decision and if there's one thing the Prime Minister is obsessed with it's popularity. The real change in society, according to this, was that the Royals became yet another side of showbiz, dragged down without much dignity to that level, but really that had happened long before: Diana's death simply threw this into sharper relief. Music by Alexandre Desplat.