Interrogating Stephen Frears.

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

The Queen and I

Questions for Stephen Frears.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

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 agoit 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?

Frears: No.

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 thinkwell, 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 liftedwith 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.

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.

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.

Slate:How much are you trying to imitate the actual queen and Blair—how important was verisimilitude to you?

Frears: It's hard to describe. You just sort of get on with it, don't you, in a rather British way. Helen Mirren is a very good actress. When she came out looking like the queen, with her makeup on, and her wig, I was amazed. Michael Sheen looks nothing like Tony Blair, but after five minutes you think he is Blair. There are two things you are considering: historical accuracy or verisimilitude, but also that you are making a drama.

Slate:The film has to imagine quite a lot about what happened behind the scenes. Was there much discussion between you and Peter Morgan about the fine line between documenting and imagining what happened?

Frears: He says that he writes it out of his imagination and then gives the script to people and asks them, is this believable? And they may say, it's a bit more like that. And there are times when we were filming, and I would say, I don't think the queen would say such and such a line. Or Blair.

Slate:Where did you get the details of the queen's daily life from—the clothing, for example? I loved seeing her walk around at night in her fluffy dressing gown.

Frears: It's not hard to get that stuff. Balmoral hasn't got central heating—so she walks around in a dressing gown holding a hot water bottle. It hasn't got central heating! Why not? Surely they can afford it. I think when the queen was a child, her nanny published a book, with a lot of information, details of the life of the young princess; that's what I mean about lifting the veil. Recently there was a big story about the queen and Tupperware—and how she's always putting leftover bits into Tupperware. All that means is that she was brought up in the war, when there was hardship, and has a deep sense of thrift. There was a tremendous amount of excitement about whether she and Prince Philip slept together. I can tell you the people who say yes, they do; and people who say, no, they don't. So we chose to show them as sometimes sleeping together, sometimes not. Since the film came out, many people have given me more details; I keep saying, why didn't you tell me earlier?

Slate: How closely did you and Peter Morgan work on the film? Did the two of you make adjustments to the script as you went along?

Frears: Oh yes, the whole time. And indeed rehearsal consisted in rewriting the scenes to shape the material. What you're constantly doing—if you're working with an actress as intelligent as Helen—is you're constantly editing the scenes, constantly refining what is written. That's the principal job—to refine each moment. I might say, This is a bit boring. Or I don't believe this line. And then there was the elimination of our prejudices. That came toward the end. You could see that a line was not helpful to the drama but released your prejudices.

Slate:For me, the moment when my sympathies started to shift toward the queen, a bit, was when she goes out for the drive by herself.

Frears: Yes. That's what someone said to me the other day—when she starts to drive, you realize, oh, it's all a lot more complex than it seems, isn't it.

Slate: One of my favorite small touches was when Cherie Blair suggests to Tony that he has a "mother thing" for the queen—psychologizing even his respect for her.

Frears: That was me being kind to the writer. For some reason, I found the idea of psychological explanations for these people's behavior presumptuous. Peter took that moment seriously, as a motivation for Blair's behavior. When I read the script I said to him, you can't take this seriously! Whatever else, I think it is impolite to ascribe psychological motivations to people. But it's a good joke.

Slate:Well, as a viewer, I felt the film had a certain impatience with psychological explanations.

Frears: You've had it from the horse's mouth.

Slate: What do you think the future of the monarchy in the 21st century is?

Frears: God knows. She's enormously popular, the queen. She has an 80 percent approval rating. There isn't a movement toward republicanism or anything. But that situation is confused by the love and respect people feel for an 80-year-old woman. There may be changes after she dies. Then again, they are clever people; they've survived for what, 300 years. And the people around her, her aides, are just as clever as the people around Blair.

Slate:I read earlier this week that Shilpa Shetty of Big Brother will meet with the queen and Blair. What do you make of that?

Frears: Oh, I saw that, too. Was she going to the commons or the palace? This is a matter of national importance in Britain. I don't know what to make of it. You have to ask someone cleverer than me. Clearly someone thought it was more important than the number of people who died in Iraq last week.

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.