With gongs for Best Female Actor and Best Screenplay at the 63rd Venice Film Festival, the critical success of THE QUEEN seems to have taken its filmmakers and stars by surprise. Portraying the ‘living’ on the big screen comes with huge risks attached – let alone recounting a story that is so embedded in a nation’s mindset. FilmExposed’s Chris Power finds out how they got it so right…
Ask Peter Morgan, fresh from receiving his award for best screenplay at Venice for THE QUEEN, which portrays the push-and-pull between Prime Minister Tony Blair and Elizabeth II in the week after Princess Diana’s death, how he imagines his way into the private conversations of the most powerful figures in the land and he is charmingly self-effacing. “I don’t wish to take anything away from my staggering achievement,” he deadpans, “but quite a lot is actually in the public record, and as you built up a picture of what actually happened, and did more and more research, scenes eventually sort of wrote themselves.”
That Morgan’s scripts write themselves is almost believable given the prolificacy of the man. As well as The Queen he has penned the forthcoming The Last King Of Scotland (2006), TV drama Longford (2006), and next year’s The Other Boleyn Girl, starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson. All this plus the critically lauded, sell-out run of his new play Frost/Nixon at London’s Donmar Warehouse. Dame Helen Mirren – also an award-winner at Venice - is in no doubt that it was Morgan’s script, above all else, that attracted her to The Queen.
“When I read Peter’s script for the first time I just thought it was beautifully judged. It was funny, it was bright, it was moving. And it was poetic, and that I didn’t expect.” Its quality gave her the strength to overcome her misgivings about playing still-living people of such stature. “I haven’t often played living people,” she explains. “I’ve avoided it because you’re in a bit of a no-win situation. You’ll never be half as good as the real person, and all you can really do is fail.” The judges at Venice disagreed, as will anyone who witnesses Mirren’s extraordinary performance, one that appears to have ‘Oscar’ written all over it. As for what materials she made use of to research the role, Mirren is emphatic about what proved most valuable to her. “It was a tiny little 20 seconds of film of the Queen at about 12 years old, getting out of a car and putting her hand out to shake hands with someone. It doesn’t even go so far as the shaking of the hand, but the way she gets out of the car, and the way she puts her hand out, to me absolutely encapsulated the real character when you extricate her from the institution, this thing that settled on her shoulders at the age of 25. I watched that bit of film over and over again, and when I played her I was always playing that little 12-year-old girl.”
Another noteworthy performance comes from Michael Sheen, who reprises the Tony Blair role that won him plaudits in Frears and Morgan’s The Deal (2003). “It’s very rare as an actor that you get to play a character again a few years later on,” Sheen explains, “and that was partly what was great about doing it. Having gone through the fear when we did The Deal of whether I’d be able to play Blair, whether the audience would accept me, I knew I could do it. The challenge was to take him further than I had before.”
As for Frears, the positive reaction to his film has come as a huge relief. Did he harbour thoughts of awards and approbation? “Listen,” he gruffly responds, “when you open a film you don’t dare think about things like that. You’d be mad to imagine that such things could happen. I’m slightly overwhelmed by what’s happened.” As for indications of the film’s highly unlikely universal appeal, the director is clearly amused as well as thrilled. “I notice that republicans like it very much,” he says with a mischievous smile. “As for monarchists, the most extraordinary thing has happened: there’s an article in The Spectator by Diana’s secretary who describes going to the film to sneer at it, and just saying he couldn’t imagine how it could have been better done. It’s astonishing. Completely unsolicited and unexpected, but it’s a quite extraordinary compliment.”
So, praise from quarters expected and unexpected abounds, but what would the Queen think of The Queen? “I think,” says Mirren, quoting the veteran writer on the Royals, Robert Lacey, “the Queen will say, ‘Well, that could have been worse. Could I have a gin and tonic, please?’”