Interrogating Stephen Frears.

Examining culture and the arts.
Feb. 8 2007 2:44 PM

The Queen and I

Questions for Stephen Frears.

(Continued from Page 1)

Slate:What did you make of the public reaction to Diana's death as it was taking place?

Frears: I was in New Mexico, making a Western, so I failed to spot the nuances that were going on. It clearly took everyone by surprise. Princess Margaret, when she saw the people outside, thought they were all Americans.

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Slate:In the film, after Diana's death, Blair goes on TV to read an emotional speech about Diana as the "people's princess"—a speech the film shows us being carefully crafted the night before. What should the viewer make of the relationship between his emoting on cue and the queen's taking refuge in stoicism?

Frears: One of the charges against Blair is his control of the media; it was one of the things that the palace held against him. This control is where he rules from; if you can do these things, you can do what you want. That was the lesson Blair took from Clinton's presidency. So there was nothing wicked about his speech; Blair did what was expected of him. The person who behaved peculiarly, in this instance, was the queen, in not speaking.

Slate: There has been some debate in America over how to read Blair's role. Some on the left have read the film as a critique of Blair for abandoning his Labour ideals to get cozy with the elite who wouldn't have accepted him before. Others see in it a foreshadowing of his partnership with Bush. Do you agree with that reading?

Frears: It is one of the things within the film. Blair went from being close to Clinton to being close to Bush, a move you would have thought was politically illogical. Blair clearly fell for rich people; whether that would have included the queen I wouldn't know. But he certainly fell for the rich; he was the man who went to Murdoch, after all. And in going from Clinton to Bush, that was in the end what caused all the trouble he is in today.

Slate:Overall, though, the view of Blair in The Queen seems very positiveand oddly out of sync with how the British left views Blair today. Would you agree?

Frears: As a filmmaker, it was complicated: We were making a film about a figure who has become incredibly unpopular, but we were choosing to present a moment when he was incredibly popular. You have to grin and bear it.

Slate:The film stays entirely within the time during which it takes place. But at one point the queen says to Blair, Someday this will happen to you. Was that in the film from the start, or was it added to the film later?

Frears: It was always there. An odd moment of prescience.

Slate: Was it tempting to add more foreshadowing of the present, and the way that Blair would misjudge the mood of the people?

Frears: It was very tempting to add a line at the end along the lines of, "Maybe now I'll go invade Iraq." But it wasn't very realistic—I doubt if he said it.

Slate:How did you and Peter Morgan conceptualize your portrayal of Prince Charles? I noted that he is the only one who is allowed to grieve privately, in the hospital chapel in France; the camera doesn't follow him into the room.

Frears: Yes. I'm told—this is only gossip—that he really broke down there. If I'd been him, I would have felt indescribable guilt, grief for my children. You'd think you were in a real mess; I wouldn't wish that on anyone. The children lose their mother, and no matter how much Prince Charles thought he was in the right, he and his family are responsible in a lot of ways for what happened to the girl. This is a stupid thing to say, but it seems to me that the marriage was worse than the death. I think they're guilty people. They're grown-ups, and they're supposed to understand these things.

Slate:At the same time, the film seems to understand the queen's notion that there is honor in reticence.

Frears: Well, yes. Charles knew what Diana's popularity meant; he had seen people crowding round Diana and ignoring him when they visited towns in Britain. They are, at the same time, ridiculous figures in public; while in private, I imagine, Charles is intelligent. I remember being given a tape of a speech he made in Turin at something called the Slow Food Fair. It was very articulate, intelligent, mature, passionate. The same with Prince Philip; he comes across in Britain as a sort of comic fascist.

Slate: He was the figure the film portrayed with the least nuance, I thought.

Frears: These people are seen as ridiculous, and you're trying to say, No, they are intelligent, too. Alas! The jokes about them are so delicious! But casting Jim Cromwell helped—all the nuances came from casting Jim Cromwell.

Slate: The stag scene has been debated by people who've seen the movie, and in Slate's offices. I read it as the queen experiencing a moment of sympathy for herself—seeing herself as hounded, yet noble nonetheless, a moment that somehow takes her outside of her immediate surroundings.

Frears: But it's more precise than that. When I described the queen earlier as being stranded on the beach—well, in Britain, in Scotland, they cull the stags to keep the numbers down. The ones they go for first are the older ones. Now, if you've got 14 points, as the stag in the film does, you are older; in other words, a deer with that number of points is an old deer and should have been killed. There's also a famous painting by Edwin Landseer called The Monarch of the Glen—it's what you would imagine, a heroically lit stag on a crag somewhere.

Slate:On the other hand, I've talked to viewers who saw the stag scene as the queen experiencing a moment of sympathy for Diana.

Frears: I've been told that too. We have a metaphor at the center that has many meanings! I don't know what to say; if people think that, they think that.

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