Best Motion Picture of the Year, "The Queen" (Miramax, Path and Granada). A Granada Production. This image is made available here as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 79th Annual Academy Awards¨ Nominations Announcement Press Kit. This image may only be used by legitimate members of the press. Photo by Laurie Sparham/Courtesy of Miramax Films.
THE QUEEN is rated ‘PG-13’ and has a running time of 103 minutes
THE QUEEN takes audiences behind the scenes of one of the most shocking public events of recent times providing an illuminating, acidly funny, yet deeply affecting, dramatic glimpse into what happens in the corridors of power when tragedy strikes. The setting for this fictional account of real events is no less than the private chambers of the Royal Family and the British government in the wake of the sudden death of Princess Diana in August of 1997.
In the immediate aftermath of the Princess’s passing, the tightly contained, tradition-bound world of the Queen of England (DAME HELEN MIRREN) clashes with the slick modernity of the country’s brand new, image-conscious Prime Minister, Tony Blair (MICHAEL SHEEN).
The result is an intimate, yet thematically epic, battle between private and public, responsibility and emotion, custom and action as a grieving nation waits to see what its leaders will do. With a screenplay drawn from extensive interviews, devoted research, discreet sources and informed imagination, as well as tour de force portrayals of living figures of power, THE QUEEN provides a stunningly fresh portrait of one of the modern world’s last great monarchs as she has never been seen before as a vulnerable human being in her darkest hour, amidst the unprecedented media madness, stark emotions and PR maneuvering set in motion by Diana’s death.
The producers are Andy Harries, Christine Langan and Tracy Seaward; the executive producers are Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken and Scott Rudin. The film stars Dame Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Helen McCrory, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam and Sylvia Sims. Bringing to dramatic life the hidden world of the Royals is a team that includes cinematographer Affonso Beato, production designer Alan Macdonald, costume designer Consolata Boyle and editor Lucia Zucchetti.
THE DEATH THAT CHANGED A NATION In August of 1997, Princess Diana, arguably one of the most famous and idolized women in all the world, died in a disastrous car crash on the streets of Paris. The global population was sent reeling into shock, the media went into a frenzy and, in England, where total reserve once held sway, a remarkable sea change appeared to take place in the very fabric of society as the public came forth in unexpected displays of profound grief and emotion.
The resounding impact of the tragedy was felt in an entirely different way in the corridors of power. Behind closed doors, an intensely private battle of wills erupted between the newly elected British government and the Royal Family over how to handle the incident. Diana was already a highly contentious figure. Following her separation from Prince Charles, the Princess had refused to sit quietly in the background and disappear from public life, causing anguish for the Royals.
Now, in the wake of her passing, the Queen and her family did what they were used to doing in the midst of family tragedy they hunkered down in their own concealed world of ritual and protocol, hiding away at their Scottish retreat in Balmoral, only to be persuaded unwillingly into the public eye by the brash and powerful new Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
This remarkable clash between a regal Monarch trying to fulfill her ancient mandate and a savvy master of contemporary political public relations forms the heart of THE QUEEN. As a story, the events surrounding the death of Princess Diana could offer endless easy angles for a filmmaker: a terrifying car chase by ruthless paparazzi; a celebrity devastatingly killed in her prime; a controversial love affair cut short before it could blossom; and a press corps accused of causing the death of the woman with whom they were so obsessed.
Yet THE QUEEN takes an entirely fresh approach peering instead at the resonating effects of Diana’s death as it shook the very foundations of Britain’s relationship with its own monarchy. For director Stephen Frears, the hope was that THE QUEEN would provide a wholly unexpected view of the world’s most famous monarch.
“The whole institution is quite ludicrous, so it’s easy to make the Royal Family seem even more ridiculous than they are. That’s what goes on all the time in England; there’s a constant mockery,” Frears notes. “But we focused on quite the opposite, on their human qualities in this crisis and as people denied a real life in a way. The Queen recently had her 80th birthday and it seems from a lot of the articles written that many people agree that, while the institution is idiotic and inappropriate, the woman is extraordinary.”
Drawn to the subject of contemporary British society, there seemed to be no more compelling story to tell than that of how the Royal Family clashed with both Tony Blair and the prevailing mood of the British public after Diana’s death reflecting all at once the vanishing potency of the monarchy, the ascendancy of the Prime Minister and the catalytic shift to a more demonstrative, open and image-driven British populace. “Andy, Stephen, Pete and I wanted to team up on a film about another great British institution,” says Langan.
“The Royal Family was an obvious choice and the death of Diana and how the Royal Family coped with that quickly emerged as the most promising subject. Diana had been a great cause of tension while she was alive; it was inevitable that her death would present the Monarchy with perhaps its biggest challenge of the past 50 years.” Langan continues, “The most fascinating part of the story was the idea of looking into what went on behind the scenes. You had a brand new government for which there were huge
expectations but four months into his premiership, Tony Blair hadn’t really delivered a striking gesture. Suddenly, with the death of the Princess of Wales, Blair found a role to play by taking the lead. The real heart of our story became the unique relationship that developed in those few days between the Prime Minister and the Queen.” For Harries, it was his personal recollections of how the Royal Family and the Queen initially reacted to the news of Diana’s death with a thudding silence -- that provided inspiration.
He was struck by the idea of a Royal Family so tightly clad in their own sense of tradition that they couldn’t and wouldn’t break with protocol to face the nation’s worst tragedy; and with a public that seemed to hunger something indefinable from their figureheads.
“What fascinated me about the story of Diana and the Queen,” Harries explains, “was that here you have an aging monarch whose reign is rooted in Victoriana, being challenged by a young princess, who, thanks to a catalogue of bad judgments, was absorbed into the Royal Family. Diana had an extraordinary aura about her, and when she died, there was a terrible stillness. No one quite knew how to react at first. Then the grief started. Was it a real emotion? Was it a fake emotion? Or was it an emotion really meant for all our other woes?”
These were some of the questions that Langan and Harries wanted Peter Morgan to probe in his screenplay, certain it would make for a gripping feature film. They also felt that Morgan -- who cut his teeth on numerous prestigious television and theatrical dramas and most recently co-wrote THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, adapted from the novel about a young Scottish doctor’s searing encounter with Idi Amin -- was the perfect man for the job. Morgan had already proven he possessed the rare skill of being able to peel back the veil on contemporary events and find within them crisp, compelling, comically-tinged drama. Morgan was able to take advantage of numerous private sources -- whom he is sworn not to reveal but who gave him exceptional insights into the way both the Queen and Blair might have thought, talked, acted and felt during the crisis.
These included former employees of Downing Street, former employees of the Palace, biographers, private secretaries, people who spent time at Balmoral as guests, as well as journalists and politicians talking off the record. By putting together a framework of exactly when and why Blair and The Queen interacted in the days between Diana’s death and her public funeral, Morgan could then fill in the picture with informed imagination and conjecture as to what was said in their most secret conversations. “Peter is very gifted at negotiating that fine line between what we know happened and what we imagine happened,” says Harries. “That’s the territory of this film.” That same territory, though rife with creative risks and potential controversies, was also of great interest to director Stephen Frears, whose list of credits include an impressively wide variety of Academy Award®-nominated films including DANGEROUS LIAISONS, THE GRIFTERS and the recent DIRTY PRETTY THINGS.
“It is very hard to find subjects that have some vitality, subjects that haven’t been flogged to death,” says Frears. “This project was very appealing to me, partly because it meant I would be working with Peter Morgan again and partly for the subject matter -- the conflict between the old world and the new world. It’s really a story about the end of tradition, which has been both a strength and weakness in Britain.” The director was quite aware that he was stepping into a forbidden zone with THE QUEEN, but he had few qualms about doing so.
“When you’re telling a story about people who are still alive, you become scrupulously responsible,” he explains. “You can’t reach for the easy solutions. Making a movie about the Queen is almost like making a movie about your mother and in England, the Queen really does serve as the kind of symbolic, emotional mother of the country. So you don’t want to be in any way perceived as unfair or facile. But how do you do that? You do it by instinct I suppose. You’re more attentive to not leaning on your prejudices and you stay away from anything that might be unsupportable.” As a British subject, there was also a personal element for Frears.
“The emotions surrounding the Queen are quite complicated,” he says. “She’s a woman I’ve known in some sense for 60 years, so digging through all those feelings, which were more complex than I expected them to be, was the difficult part.” Frears' keen directorial eye became key to the riveting style and tone of THE QUEEN. “When you are dealing with complex and somewhat controversial matters, you must have a director with gravitas, serious gravitas, and Stephen has that in spades,” says Harries.
“He’s not just experienced, he’s also incredibly smart. He’s a risk-taker; he’s restless and he has a genuinely inquisitive mind. These are all rare qualities and necessary for this film.” WRITING THE ROYALS: PETER MORGAN TACKLES A RISKY SCREENPLAY Right from the start, it was clear that THE QUEEN had the potential to spark a firestorm of controversy.
“What’s so powerful about the idea is its very audacity you are making a film about a living monarch,” comments Andy Harries. Adds screenwriter Peter Morgan, “What’s most daring about it is that it isn’t a satire. It’s a story that dares to paint people in power as complex, rounded, conflicted human beings just like you and me. There’s real no tradition for this sort of thing outside of comedy.”
Thus it was that it was in tackling the screenplay, Morgan knew he would have to break new ground in transforming two very real people who are still very much in the headlines The Queen of England and the country’s Prime Minister into dramatic characters facing a moment of personal and national crisis. The key would be maintaining authenticity without ever crossing the line into caricature. He began, as any writer does, with intensive research.
There were two main areas of inquiry: one was related to the regimented protocol that surrounds the Queen, from how she is served her breakfast to how she whiles away the days at her retreat in Balmoral; and the other was forming a detailed time-line of what was known to have happened during the days between Diana’s death and her public funeral. “In some ways it was very similar to researching any story that takes place in a closed society you have to try to work your way in and to understand what makes these characters tick,” explains Morgan. Fortunately, Morgan had access to an exceptional array of inside sources from his work on “The Deal,” as well as from his personal and social life.
Additionally, he conducted extensive interviews with anyone he could find who might have had close contact with the Queen, Blair or members of the Royal Family from personal tailors to stable hands. “I went to see everyone and anyone who would talk,” recalls Morgan. “At first they would usually start out very tight-lipped ‘Oh, no I can’t say anything’ but suddenly they would open up and you’d start to hear ‘And here’s another thing . . . and another thing.’ People wanted to share their stories.’”
Morgan also watched reels and reels of footage of the Queen to get a better sense of her speech patterns and mannerisms. At the same time, he had a team of researchers filtering information and poring through archive press and television material for further clues and sources.
“There are a lot of biographers of both the Royal Family and the Blairs, and they all have their sources from equerries to secretaries to butlers to maids to civil servants,” Morgan notes. “There’s a lot of material out there, but it was always a question of sifting the real from the embellished.’”
To further helping Morgan gain real insight into the Royal Family and its ways, he consulted with biographers Robert Lacey and Ingrid Seward. A world-renowned author whose books are meticulously researched and eschew sensationalism, Lacey’s works include Royal: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, The Queen Mother, Princess and the first serious biography of the Queen, Majesty: Elizabeth II and the House of Windsor. Seward is editor in chief of Majesty magazine, a well-respected commentator on the Royals and had unrivalled access to Princess Diana when she wrote her best-sellers The Queen & Di: The Untold Story and Diana: An Intimate Portrait.
As for surprises that came along the way, Morgan offers: “I didn’t know that Charles had been afraid for his life that week for one thing. But I think the biggest surprise is that I hadn’t entirely come to terms with the extent that we in Britain haven’t worked out what we want from our Royals. If we want to abolish them, we should abolish them. If we want to keep them, then let’s define that -- but let’s stop torturing them.”
One of Morgan’s most fruitful research trips was also the least expected. When the screenwriter heard that any member of the public could rent a small cottage at the Queen’s Balmoral retreat in Scotland, he thought it had to be too good to be true. But it turned out it was all on the up and up and soon the screenwriter found himself anonymously in residence on the grounds of Balmoral. There, he would have a chance to get stunningly close to the Queen who, as luck would have it, arrived during Morgan’s stay as well as to the employees who get to see her in her most relaxed and natural setting.
“We were able to talk to countless grounds staff, the stable people, anyone really, and find out all sorts of things,” he says. “The things we learned really aren’t secrets -- in that anyone who had the audacity to rent the cottage at Balmoral could find them out!”
Being at Balmoral gave Morgan a truly visceral sense of the Queen’s isolation. “You really understand when you’re there how cut off from reality it is,” he notes. “You’re a million miles from London in a thick wood, and it’s a kind of total fairyland. Being there you can see that it’s no wonder she didn’t know what the mood was in London after Diana’s death. One private secretary referred to Balmoral as ‘Planet Zog’ and it really has that feeling of being in another universe.” Indeed, the more he learned about the Queen and her secluded life, the more Morgan began to feel empathy for the experience of the Royals during those harsh days when the press turned against them. “They were a family in crisis locked up in a closed world,” he observes.
“The Queen decided that to protect Diana’s boys, all televisions and radios were to be removed. So they were living in a place of total denial. They were bunkered up in an institution propped up by sycophancy, and they weren’t being told what was going on in the country at large. The people were on the streets clamoring for a reaction from the family, and none was forthcoming for that reason.
It was also at Balmoral that Morgan learned that the Queen would often go out driving alone in her Land Rover which led to the wholly imaginary yet starkly emotional sequence in the film in which she encounters, with a flicker of recognition, a majestic stag alone in the woods. “That scene was written as a kind of potent metaphor,” Morgan explains. “Apart from the fact that the stag is an age-old symbol of the imperial, and that the Queen is known to have a deeper kind of connection to animals than to people, I was also interested in the idea that any stag that still has 14-points is one that has eluded capture and avoided being culled which seemed an apt reflection on a monarchy that has not really played any serious role in the politics of the country for a long time.”
Even with all the revelations that the research brought, another influence closer to home helped Morgan to forge the voice and personality of the Queen. “As it turns out, my own mother is the same age as the Queen,” he explains.
“And many people have talked about how the Queen serves as kind of a mother figure for Tony Blair so I was very conscious of that while writing. The Queen is such an unknowable, private person, yet, in many ways, I think my mother is exactly the same sort of person. She grew up during the war, never complained, is very thrifty, goes around the house shutting off lights and that’s just who she is. It’s very contrasted by Charles, who has this astonishing extravagance and profligate wastefulness, which I think adds up to someone with quite low self esteem.
But The Queen is a woman who has essentially given her entire life to service and now in just one week it all starts to fall apart.” Morgan was equally fascinated by Tony Blair.
“He swept into power in a landslide and ushered in a complete change, after well more than a decade of conservative rule,” he notes. “Blair is someone who is just possessed with making people like him, but for him to go into the Palace for the first few times must have been incredibly exciting and we wanted to capture that.”
He also saw that the conflict between Blair and the Queen reflected far deeper rifts between the traditional and the modern, in British society and the world at large. “It’s the question of elected power versus inherited power,” he explains. “I think it became a kind of mother-son story that goes to the heart of the people’s changing value systems. Blair ushered in a kind of touchy, feely modern era that altered the British reputation for stoicism. Suddenly it was Cool Britannia, and it felt very modern and exciting.
But the price was that a whole traditional part of Britain seemed to die with it. And the death pf Diana became the catalyst that brought these two worlds into conflict.” Another catalytic force in THE QUEEN is the media which becomes a kind of de facto character in the film.
“Television is a key element to the story because that’s really how most people knew Diana, know the Royal Family and how we all experienced the whole story of Diana’s death,” he notes. “And of course, the media is a constant consideration in Tony Blair’s government.” Even as he was writing, Morgan was constantly shifting on the fly.
“I showed the screenplay to endless people I knew privately and socially who had inside knowledge and they would say things like ‘Oh, he would never say something like that’ and then I’d ask ‘Well, what would he say?’ and go from there.” Morgan also found a highly supportive collaborator in Stephen Frears. “He’s a writer’s director,” comments Morgan. “He will pore over every single word and force you to go back and make it clearer. There was an endless sifting of tone and emphasis and clarification. Very few directors have that same intellectual rigor.” Frears was equally appreciative of all that Morgan brought to the film. “I’m very respectful of writers and Peter writes very well about these kinds of things,” says the director. “I wasn’t that interested in whether the things that are said in the script were really said, but it had to be completely believable.”
Morgan needed not only intellectual rigor but also guts to tackle the usually off-limits subjects of THE QUEEN. Yet despite the fact that he was writing highly confidential conversations between people who not only were in power in 1997 but remain so today, Morgan saw little to fear. “Ultimately, there’s nothing vicious or defamatory about this film,” he comments. “It might be sharply critical in places but it’s primarily affectionate and sympathetic to all the people involved.
In many ways I came to believe that the only real blame for what happened in those days could be placed on us the public and our desire to be a part of someone we didn’t even really know.” CASTING QUEENS, PRINCES AND PRIME MINISTERS When it came to casting THE QUEEN, the challenges were obvious. The film’s roles were made up entirely of real, living people with well-established personas, not to mention legacies to protect. “The trouble is that we already think we know these characters so well and they’re so familiar so the cast had to find a kind of collective line to ride in being human without being ridiculous,” says Frears.
“It wasn’t something that we talked about so much, but it was taken into account in choosing the actors.” Perhaps no role would pose as many potential pitfalls as that of Queen Elizabeth herself, a woman who, as a largely ceremonial yet protected symbol of a once imperial England, has never been depicted so intimately or humanly on the screen. Having reigned for more than half a century as Queen, she seemed an almost impenetrable character. But Andy Harries had someone in mind who he thought could pull it off. He had just overseen production on the award-winning television series “Prime Suspect” starring Helen Mirren, and she struck him as having not only the right appearance but also the talent and courage to take on the role.
“She’s the Queen of British drama and she looks a bit like the Queen. So I thought what a good idea, Helen as the Queen,” he recalls. For Mirren, who has created a vast array of memorable characters on stage, screen and television, it was an irresistible offer. “I thought ‘The Deal’ was a fantastic piece of work so I knew I would be in very good hands,” says the actress. “This story is delicate material -- dangerous material in a way -- so you have to be confident that the people you are working with have the intelligence and ability to put a story like this on the screen without a cheap betrayal of the subject.” Still Mirren was acutely aware that she was stepping into a potential minefield by playing a person as famous, and mysterious, as the present monarch.
”Given the iconic status of the Queen, I was terrified. I was probably more nervous about this role than almost any other role I’ve ever done,” she admits. To set herself at ease in the role, Mirren worked from the outside in, starting with the Queen’s uniquely upper-crust speech patterns and then getting closer to her essence as a mother, grandmother and national figurehead. “My work with dialogue coach Penny Dyer was invaluable. She is quite extraordinary in her understanding of voice,” Mirren says.
"Then I found a thought that relaxed me -- which was to think of myself as a portrait painter. What good portraitists do is to bring their own perception of their subject, and then reproduce that person through their own personality, their own psychology and thus, every portrait is different.” All along, she carefully attempted to tread that razor-thin line between giving a truly human portrayal and tipping over into caricature.
“You don’t want the audience caught up in your brilliant impersonation,” she explains. “You want them to believe who you are and go on your journey with you in an imaginative way. If the impersonation is too brilliant it can mean the truth is too intrusive; sometimes you have to step back from the truth, because in theatrical drama it can jar the audience out of their imaginative engagement with what you are doing.” Frears was quite pleased with Mirren’s humanistic and layered approach.
“I’m not sure Helen would have let us get away with any cheap shots,” he remarks. To get a better understand of the Queen’s inner struggles, Mirren did do a lot of research. “Of course you also have to get certain things right, the hair, the hands, the stance, the walk, the voice,” she comments.
“I had photographs of the Queen in my trailer and watched tapes all the time. It was a bit intimidating, because each time I watched them I would feel I was failing her, failing the inner person and you are constantly trying to get to the inner person. There was one piece of early film, a simple little thing of about one minute of Elizabeth at about 12, getting out of a car and walking forward to shake someone's hand. I found it very touching. I watched it over and over. The more I studied her, the more extraordinary she became, as a person. She's not like Tony Blair, who’s so forward. She’s back within herself, but it’s not a neurotic place or a confused place, it’s a very steady place, quite a confident place. It’s a place of incredible self-discipline -- and then she steadily comes out from that point and that's the person I was constantly trying to fight my way towards.”
It was also essential to Mirren to create a real sense of the Royals as a family. So she gathered all the actors playing the various family members in the film -- James Cromwell who plays Prince Philip, Alex Jennings who plays Prince Charles and Sylvia Syms who plays the Queen Mother -- at her house “so that we got used to the sound of each others voices as family and it wouldn’t feel like being with a whole group of people talking in funny voices.” Working with Stephen Frears was another great pleasure for Mirren on THE QUEEN.
“Stephen directs like a conductor,” she says of Frears. “It’s as if he’s hearing a tune of the film in his head and he’s conducting the performance from that.” While finding the right actress to embody the Queen was paramount to the filmmakers, they already knew who would play Tony Blair: the same actor who had done such a stunning job capturing the Prime Minister in “The Deal,” Michael Sheen. One of the UK’s most talented young actors, Sheen’s compelling transformation into the Labour leader-in-waiting had drawn rave reviews, so there was little doubt he could nail the charismatic persona of the Prime Minister. But, while he was playing the same person, Sheen realized that, four years later, Blair was now quite different. Not only had he won the battle for leadership of the Labour Party but he had also just enjoyed an historic landslide victory in the general election, with all the vast, new responsibility that entailed. “In ‘The Deal,’ Blair was young and bright-eyed,” says Sheen.
“Here, we see a much more cautious, more thoughtful character. There’s more weight and reflection in this Blair. He’s certainly more mature. The huge mandate he won four months before Diana’s death gave him a lot of confidence but he still had some way to go to be completely at ease with his new role as Prime Minister. Certainly by the end of the film he’s grown in stature and confidence.”
Sheen was especially drawn to THE QUEEN’s dark, acerbic humor and underlying humanity. “Peter Morgan’s writing walks a tightrope of insolence and boldness,” he observes. “What’s great about the script is that it mixes the domestic -- the Blairs eating pasta in front of the television with the professional in a way that makes it all very believable. There’s something slightly shocking in seeing these famous people doing ordinary things. Peter and Stephen got those details right on ‘The Deal’ and they get it right here.” In his second time playing Tony Blair, Sheen once again enjoyed the complicated, detail-oriented process of embodying a living leader.
“Strangely, the acting process is reversed with a role like this,” Sheen explains. “If you’re playing a fictional character, then you start from the inside and the voice and mannerisms manifest themselves almost organically. With a real person, you’re starting from the outside and then go in. I watched a lot of video footage and read about Blair and spoke to people about him. I was looking not just to copy him but to look for those little hooks that give some kind of clue as to what is going on inside his head. Impersonation is about caricature, usually with a punch-line, whereas what we’re doing here is an emotional drama. So, first you do a lot of hard work in research but then you have to let that go when it comes to filming.” Ultimately, Sheen sees the film as being about much more than just the events depicted for him, the story cuts right to the very heart of an era in which an older way of viewing the world is at war with the new.
“On the surface THE QUEEN is about how the Royal Family dealt with Diana’s death and how Blair advised them,” he says. “But, it’s really a film about values, about a moment in British culture where concepts like duty and tradition as represented by the institution of the Royal Family clashed with concepts like informality and flexibility.” THE QUEEN also marks Sheen’s third time working with Stephen Frears following MARY REILLY and “The Deal,” a collaboration Sheen relished continuing. “Stephen constantly prods you to go further,” he comments.
“It’s an incredibly satisfying and rewarding experience -- but I wouldn’t describe it as a comfortable experience. His characters are always complex, and to get that complexity he is constantly getting you to dig and go further and further. You are very aware that he is manipulating you but you are happy about it because you trust him. When I was about to do a scene with Helen Mirren, he would say things like ‘She’s so scary, isn’t she?’ just to create the context that he felt was right for my character. He has a little twinkle in his eye but it works.” Playing Blair’s wife, Cherie, is rising star Helen McCrory, who enjoyed getting the chance to provide a rich, multi-dimensional picture of a woman more often seen in the background.
“I’ve always had sympathy for Cherie Blair,” says McCrory, “and felt she got a very raw deal from the press who can’t resist printing unflattering images of her. This is a highly intelligent woman who is extremely successful professionally as a human rights lawyer. I welcomed the opportunity to show her as a loving mother and wife, who is more than the caricature shown in the media -- who is smart, instinctive, natural and very funny. From her body language, I understood that she’s very engaging, very quick to laugh, very relaxed with strangers and it’s often her, rather than Tony, who approaches people first.”
The other key cast members joining THE QUEEN include veteran actress Sylvia Syms as the Queen Mother and distinguished stage actors Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, Roger Allam as the Queen’s deputy private secretary Sir Robin Janvrin, and Tim McMullan as Blair’s press secretary Alastair Campbell. Says Frears of Jennings’ performance as one of the world’s most recognizable icons, “He’s almost the hardest person to portray because, again, he’s usually treated as such a ridiculous figure. I like all the guilt that comes out. I imagined he was crucified with guilt that week because he knew more than anybody.” Perhaps most surprisingly, Frears approached American actor James Cromwell for the part of Prince Philip. Best known for his performances in the international hits BABE and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, Cromwell had worked with Frears on the American television drama FAIL SAFE.
“I think he needed a straw dog, someone the British press could take a shot at,” jokes Cromwell of his casting. “An American as Prince Philip? Beyond the pale! Stephen was a little hesitant at first, wondering whether I could pull it off. I think what convinced him was that I had actually met Prince Phillip and the Queen and performed for them at Whitehall for an event that Phillip sponsors for the World Wildlife Fund. That gave me some insight into how he speaks and moves. But, mostly what I’m interested in is finding the humanity behind the presentation.” Cromwell developed his own interpretation of Philip’s point-of-view.
“My sense of Philip is that he is very deferential and understands his position exactly,” he remarks. “He says as much as he can and as he feels is necessary and knows when he has to step back. There are so many interesting questions about this family. Where does the responsibility for the dysfunction of the family lie? Did the Queen pass over to Philip her responsibilities as a mother in order to fulfil her responsibilities as a monarch? Was Philip incapable of giving Charles the kind of love and acceptance that would have made him behave differently? I can’t judge him because as an actor if I judge him then I would separate myself from him and become incapable of really portraying who he is.
TRADITION VS. IMAGE: DESIGNING THE TWO WORLDS OF THE QUEEN Throughout THE QUEEN, there is constant dramatic tension between a fading world of tradition, pomp and protocol and a brave new world of emotion, style and informality. This contrast also informed every aspect of the film’s look as director Stephen Frears and his creative team forged two distinct worlds through cinematography and design. “The film is really a chamber piece but you’re also dealing with enormously powerful and enormously rich figures,” explains the director.
“We’re used to seeing these characters only in the most ceremonial of situations but the film is really about their human side so we had to find the right balance. I especially enjoyed the scenes that show what their lives are really like, as when the Royals are all sitting around watching television.” Frears worked closely with Affonso Beato, the Brazilian cinematographer best known for his collaborations with Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar including ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER and LIVE FLESH.
eato’s brief from Frears was simple: “Stephen decided to film the scenes of the Royal Family with 35mm and the scenes with Blair with Super 16. It fits the film: 35mm is more composed, static and has more grandeur while hand-held Super 16 has more energy and texture. We wanted a big contrast between these two worlds, from a serene, stately world to a modern, frenetic world.” Posing one of the biggest challenges for Beato was the tight time frame of the film.
“The story takes place over one week but we shot over two months. I could control the interiors but I couldn’t control the exteriors which were prone to change,” he explains. “It was tough making sure all the exteriors had a consistent tone and I would have loved more very sunny days but when you’re working in Britain, that’s always a problem.” Beato also had to contend with another intriguing element -- knowing that the film’s fictional sequences would eventually be spliced together with hand-picked archival footage from 1997. Frears wanted to use documentary footage to add to the immediacy and heighten the sense of an all-pervasive media in THE QUEEN
Helping him with this was Adam Curtis. Best known for his riveting and provocative documentaries, Curtis hit the international headlines in 2005 when his controversial examination of Al Qaeda and the war on terror, THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES: THE RISE OF THE POLITICS OF FEAR, screened as an Official Selection at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival to acclaim. THE QUEEN marks the third time, following “The Deal” and MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS that Curtis has collaborated on a Frears film. “We were keen to convey the idea that although Diana is dead, her presence is there all the time,” says Frears of using archive footage.
“There aren’t many scenes where the television isn’t on. Adam Curtis brings his own unique sensibility to the archive sections but also he has incredible knowledge of where to find the good footage. We needed some very familiar shots, shots that we are all aware of in Britain, such as Cherie opening the door in her nightie the day after the election, but we also wanted to surprise the audience with some of the images that Adam has found. There are two or three sequences when the archive is blended together so that you get a fairly seamless understanding of events.”
The contrast between the stultified atmosphere of the royal world and the relaxed charm of the Blairs is even more apparent in the design and locations for the film. Production designer Alan Macdonald, whose credits include John Maybury’s THE JACKET and LOVE IS THE DEVIL, was charged with the challenge of taking audiences into the backrooms of governments and palaces. Macdonald began with highly detailed research, watching endless television footage of the Royal Family and the Blairs to get a better sense of his subjects and especially their surroundings. He knew right away that the emphasis had to be on intimacy.
“Windsor Castle, Balmoral and Buckingham Palace are such huge and iconographic images. But, the film isn’t set in those public spaces that have been seen on television; in fact, it’s set within the private spaces of the royal residences of which there is very little documentary reference,” he notes. “We see the Queen in her bedroom, in bed, watching television and out driving her car through the Balmoral estate, which required more imagination. It was challenging but I realized right away it would provide a fascinating visual opportunity.”
Many of the film’s key scenes unfold at Balmoral Castle, the Queen’s most private retreat in the Scottish countryside. One of only two residences owned by the Queen rather than the state, Balmoral was built by Queen Victoria as a summer palace and was intended as an antidote to the formality of state and the regal lifestyle. Designed in a Scottish baronial style, the building itself is an imposing hybrid of Gothic Revival and Tudor styles, with a strong Bavarian influence similar to the hunting lodges of King Ludwig II.
Finding a stand-in for this distinctive, spire-topped mansion was no easy task. Macdonald’s search was made all the more difficult because many estate owners refused filming permission when they were told the subject of the film. Eventually, Macdonald was able to find three residences that would be transformed into Balmoral’s interiors and exteriors: the adjacent Cluny Castle in Aberdeenshire, Glenfeshie Estate in Invernessshire and Blairquhan Castle in Ayrshire. None have been seen on film before. Once he’d done his research and found his locations, Macdonald relied on his own creative instincts to fill in the blanks.
“For me, it was a very interesting task because it was a private world that we were infiltrating,” he says. “We tried to create something timeless that incorporated tradition on the one hand and the notion of a family country house on the other.
The Royal Family are portrayed in this film as being stuck in a rut of the mid-20th century. They are a generation who grew up during and after the war in a time of austerity and that is embedded in their psyche and in the design and the function of their houses.” That conservative thriftiness was further reflected in the palette Macdonald chose for the film. “There are no reds or blues in the colors we’ve used to decorate, only putty and natural, earthy colors. What’s more, Victoria and Albert created ‘Tartanmania,’ which lives on in Balmoral. We couldn’t go as far as it really is -- tartan curtains, carpets and upholstery -- because it would have looked like a themed hotel! So I used those textiles and colors but softened the palette, thus muting everything. It’s very formal and tidy and ordered.”
Meanwhile, for the Blairs’ residence, there was a total change of pace. “From my research, it seems that Tony and Cherie lived like students,” remarks Macdonald. “They were a couple with young children and lived pretty much how most people of that age with children live. It’s a fabulous contrast to the formality and the precision of Royal household lifestyle. It’s messy, chaotic, unstuffy and emotionally much warmer.” This informality even extends to the interiors in the Prime Minister’s residence in Downing Street. “On Downing Street, there was a new kind of ‘Call me Tony’ kind of philosophy rather than a ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ kind of philosophy. So, I gave the Downing Street sets a contemporary feel, mixed in with the stylistic remnants of bygone eras.”
While Macdonald worked to design rooms rarely seen by the public, THE QUEEN’s costume designer, Consolata Boyle, faced the challenge of dressing perhaps the most photographed family in the world. But she took a more creative, rather than strictly documentary, approach.
“I thought it was dangerous to go down the route of replicating everything,” she says. “There is a double challenge because the Queen is very well-known and yet she’s also the most enigmatic of women in many ways. If you just replicate everything, it can be very distracting. I wanted to create a world that rings true on an emotional and spiritual level but where I also had artistic freedom. So, I took elements of her dress and built on that.”
Boyle was able to use an especially free hand in creating the look for the Queen at her retreat in Balmoral. “That’s when she is most comfortable and there is a very strong visual continuity there between how she looked as a young woman and how she looks now. There is an elegance but also an ease in the way that she dresses and those around her dress there,” says Boyle.
“I also wanted to reflect her love of nature and the power of the environment around Balmoral, the awesome beauty of the place. Where she is at her happiest, I felt that ease needed to be reflected in the way she looks, so she wears warm, earthy, Tartan skirts, Wellington boots and brogues, and everything is very practical and comfortable. In London, there’s a much cooler, flatter, urban feel for both the Queen and the Blairs. The Queen is in work mode, as opposed to the relaxed homely atmosphere of Balmoral.”
While most of the Queen’s costumes were made from scratch, Boyle used a mixture of tailored pieces and original designs for the rest of the Royal Family including Princes Philip’s and Charles’s tweeds, the Queen Mother’s bright, feminine dresses and the workday wear of the Royal household staff. When it came to Tony and Cherie Blair, Boyle tried to capture their lack of polish as newcomers to power back in 1997. “They are both much slicker and more designer-oriented now,” she observes, “but then, they were both messier and less glamorous. The trick was to convey that just right.”
Indeed, doing it just right was a concern throughout the production. The entire team of filmmakers, as well as the cast, were acutely aware the film’s powerful evocation of the private worlds of the Queen and the Prime Minister might raise hackles and spark uproar if the details were seen as inaccurate. But they also refused to shrink from telling the story in all its manifold human dimensions. “The film will be controversial,” concludes Frears. “But I think the act of impertinence is in the making of the film. It has nothing scandalous to say or that isn’t already in the public domain, but the very concept of treating the Queen like a woman rather than like a cut-out of a sovereign might itself be shocking.”