The Queen and I
Questions for Stephen Frears.
In January, The Queen received multiple Oscar nominations, including one for Stephen Frears for best director. It chronicles the week after the death of Lady Diana Spencer. During that time, emotional crowds flocked to Buckingham Palace to mourn her death while the royal family—away in Balmoral—remained peculiarly silent, until, at the request of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was more in tune with the mood of the people, the queen, Elizabeth II, gave a televised speech, expressing the royal family's sense of loss. The Queen deals explicitly with the struggle between traditionalism and populist reform in Britain and brilliantly captures how out of touch the monarchy is with its swiftly modernizing populace. But the film also seems to be sympathetic to the queen's notions of duty found in staunchness. Is there a bit of tacit regret that we live in a culture in thrall to the cult of personality—one that demands its leaders to emote on cue? Did it feel peculiar to be making a film about a hugely popular Tony Blair at a moment when his support for the Iraq war had made him deeply unpopular? Slate posed these questions, and more, to director Stephen Frears, who spoke to us by phone.
Slate:What made you want to make the movie in the first place?
StephenFrears: We made an earlier film about Blair, and it was very successful. And then the producer came and said, Would you be interested in another film, one about these events, and with Helen playing the queen, and I said yes. I met with Helen, and Peter Morgan wrote the script. No one had ever made a film about the queen before and I liked that cheekiness.
Slate:When was the idea first broached?
Frears: About three years ago—it was after the Iraq war, if that's what the question implies.
Slate:There has been a lot of debate about how to read the film here in America. If you had to describe The Queen as pro- or anti-monarchy, or somewhere between the two, how would you describe it?
Frears: I don't think the film has anything to do with conventional questions about monarchy.
Slate:You don't think The Queen has anything to do with monarchy?
Slate: OK. Let's say this then—much of the film explores the contrasts between old styles of reticence and the new emotionalism of therapeutic cultures—
Frears: Yes. It's about tradition and change.
Slate:At the opening of the film, an artist doing a portrait of the queen tells her he didn't vote for Blair, the modernizer, because "we are in danger of losing too much that is good about this country." How sympathetic are you to that idea?
Frears: Blair came to power as the great modernizer. I'm just reading Stefan Zweig's autobiography. He makes it very clear that change is both good and bad. You can't just say that change is good. It is good and bad. You could say that the film is critical of the institution—but not particularly of the queen. It was only once I started coming to America that I realized I wasn't a citizen, I was a subject. And I began to think about the implications of that.
Slate:In the film, the queen seems to truly believe that she rules by divine right, but to most American viewers, at least, it would appear that the queen is "The Queen" because the people think she is.
Frears: That's what all the monarchs think—well, since I've never met the woman, I can't really say that. But that was what we learned in history: that they rule by divine right. I was always told that the queen takes her coronation oath very, very seriously. Her life has been one of tremendous dedication and service. And, of course, she is head of the church.
Slate:Do you think, then, that some of the power of the monarchy derives from its privacy and secrecy, and that as it modernizes—as the people are demanding that it do—it will actually lose some of that power?
Frears: Of course. That's what Walter Bagehot said: Once you lift the veil, there will be trouble. The queen's children have lifted the veil, not because they are wicked but because they're modern people. The veil got lifted, and the queen got stranded on the beach, despite her best efforts. She's never given an interview, you know, though there have been documentaries made about her. In any case, the veil has been lifted—with not altogether good results.
Slate: At one point, she invokes her notion of duty, saying that she thought that what the people wanted from her was restraint. But she is invoking staunchness, it would seem, as a way of hiding that she doesn't really feel grief for Diana. Are we supposed to think that she is deluding herself?
Frears: Well, what she really means is this: It used to be that you would say of the queen, and indeed of Blair at the start of his prime ministership, that she somehow understood the people. She would think, Whatever I've done, I have, many more times than not, judged the mood of the people right—and people generally liked the qualities she embodies, the qualities of dignity and honor. Here they don't; they want something else. Her way of going about things, which generally is the right way of going about things, ain't working.
Slate:Let's talk about Diana. The film represents her mostly through actual documentary footage of her culled from TV; was there any question about whether it should be in the film or not?
Frears: The documentary footage in the film grew, if anything, in the cutting room, because Diana was so vivacious. It is, if you think about it, peculiar, to have a contest in a film between one woman who is an actress and one woman who is herself, and also dead.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.