by Stephen Frears
In 2003, a well-regarded director of independent films spun Oscar gold from a wisp of a storyline—a tone poem about a woman and a man from different generations who make a faltering, elusive connection in an exotic setting. And now, it has been done again.
8 / 10
Ladies and gentlemen, may I present you with Lost in Translation: The Royal Edition.
Okay, the title under discussion is actually “The Queen,” and the movie transforms the above elements into a character study quite different than—though equally compelling as—Sofia Coppola’s surprise hit. Here, the elder character is not a Hollywood actor on retreat in Japan, but rather Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) on retreat at her Balmoral Estate in Scotland. And whereas Bill Murray’s brittle character melted by way of flirtations with Scarlett Johansson, the Queen has a dalliance of a different nature—with the modern world itself, embodied here by Tony Blair (Michael Sheen).
The film takes place in the week following the 1997 death of Princess Diana. As no other event could, this moment in recent history sets in high relief the disconnect between British royalty’s restrained manner and modern society’s proclivity for public emoting (see, e.g., Bill Clinton, The Oprah Winfrey Show, etc.). These two opposing forces constitute the film’s true hero and antagonist, although identifying which is which is a more difficult matter.
Mirren may begin drafting her Oscar acceptance speech now with no fear of wasted effort. She utterly commands the role of the Queen—a role that would be daunting for any actress, much less a British subject portraying Her Royal Highness in a less than sympathetic light. Mirren’s stone facade projects the Queen’s formidable persona, while the tiniest shifts in the actress’s expression invest the magisterial figure with a frail humanity eerie in its realism.
The Queen is at Balmoral Estate on the night of Diana’s death, and to the extent that she registers any reaction to the news it is one of annoyance rather than mourning. Remaining cloistered in Scotland, the Queen resists making any public statement. Death is a private matter, she insists, and royals should not be expected to make broadcasts of their grief. This justification feels to the audience like window dressing over what is really a cold affront to England’s beloved former Princess.
It feels that way to English society too, and angry tabloid headlines begin demanding a royal acknowledgement of the loss. It falls upon Tony Blair to, as he puts it, “save these people from themselves.” Sheen, doing his second turn as the Prime Minister under the direction of Stephen Frears (television movie The Deal being the first), credibly conveys Blair’s exasperation in his campaign of telephonic pleadings with the Queen, which at times feel more delicate than neurosurgery.
But as the obstinate Queen parries with Blair, the two move ever so slowly towards an understanding of each other. In Peter Morgan’s superior screenplay, drawn from “devoted research” as well as “informed imagination” according to the film’s website, Blair’s sympathy for the Queen stems largely from his wife’s (Helen McCrory) ugly dismissals of the royal family. Prince Philip (James Cromwell) plays the mirror image of Cherie Blair, balancing our perspective on the Queen by playing a curmudgeon who makes no attempt to hide his loathing of Diana. These are the weakest characters in the script, and Cromwell’s talents in particular feel wasted in his nuance-free role.
Nonetheless, Frears engages the audience, along with Blair, in a gradual reconsideration of the Queen. As the funeral plans take shape (musical accompaniment by Elton John, etc.), her initial frosty reserve begins to look more like simple good taste. Put it this way: if you don’t cringe when you see archival footage of Tom Cruise and Stephen Spielberg filing into the elaborate funeral service, the director has failed to get his meaning across.
Frears has a knack for selecting intelligent, unexpected material and executing it well. (Dirty Pretty Things, The Grifters, Dangerous Liasons.) And except a single scene of the paparazzi chasing Diana, which plays like a true crime re-enactments on cable television, he delivers again here.
Frears’ most effective use of footage from the period is not those of the American celebrities, but rather recurring shots of floral tributes left by citizens at the gates of Buckingham Palace. The mounting mass of flowers and cards perfectly symbolize the threatening encroach of a modern age over the castle walls of the royal institution itself.
The Queen, fearing damage to the image of the crown, is ultimately forced to engage with a new world in which she is lost and bewildered. Her rapprochement with Blair—and with modernity itself—is an affecting and satisfying one, in the movie if not in life.