Can the grinding forces of modernity, destroying the rules of society and replacing formality with vulgarity, possibly be defeated? Can aristocratic statesmanship, however diminished, exist in a democratic age? These are the themes of an extraordinary comic film, The Queen.
The Queen opens with Britain on the verge of change, from a constitutional monarchy to a republic, with Tony Blair's new Labour Party's overwhelming victory over a tired Conservative Party. But as the breezily informal Blair (played by Michael Sheen) prepares his victory speech the dramatic death of Princess Diana in a Paris traffic accident puts a halt to the triumphal proceedings.
Blair's team moves into action; an ambitious speechwriter supplies the line "the people's princess" for Blair's eulogy. But the royals are silent and, moreover, out of London. The Queen creates a dialogue between Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and Prime Minister Blair. He must persuade her, against her personal disgust for Diana and, moreover, her formality, to mourn in public for her former daughter-in-law. It is an education in modernity for the queen, and an education in aristocratic virtue for the prime minister.
The dialogue that ensues resembles that between Falstaff and Prince Hal, in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2. Just as it would be a mistake to assume that Hal becomes softer toward his people, so would it be wrong to see the queen as somehow more human or less a queen as a result of her and her servants' talks with the prime minister and his staff. She remains the queen, though in challenging circumstances.
Initially, the audience is likely to sympathize with Tony Blair's wife, Cherie, who wants a republic and, in effect, a peaceful version of the Puritan revolution that produced Cromwell (and literally beheaded a monarch). But the old forms have a way of prevailing. The queen sneers, recollecting Cherie's clumsy curtsy, and we think that concern overwrought, but we guffaw when we see her attempt it later on.
It becomes clear that the Queen embodies an ethic of duty and self-sacrifice foreign to the Blair team and certainly to the late Diana. For all the sympathetic treatment of Prince Charles, it is as obvious as his nose that she fails in transmitting that ethic to him. As Blair acknowledges, she could have been a success as a modern woman. She was a mechanic in World War II, after all. Blair sees something deeper about the monarchy than all its trappings and expense; being Britain's leader of what Lord Bagehot called "the efficient parts," he realizes he needs something of his sovereign's conception of duty and the common good.
After all, Blair knows that, like the noble 14-point stag gunned down by vulgar hunters later in the film, he, the queen, and Princess Di can all be bagged by the media. Whether the queen or Blair's team, all are captivated by the telly and tabloids.
In the most didactic (and most overtly political) of his novels, Freddy and Fredericka, Mark Helprin has his version of Prince Charles declare that "In America he had learned to be a king, not least because in America he discovered the sacred principle that every man is a king." From their adventures through America as disguised equals, Charles (with his companion Di) comes to understand the real meaning of inequality. The democratized duo is prepared for aristocratic duty. Uniting the virtues of two traditions, an Anglo-American union readies itself to defend civilization. Helprin makes us wish for something beyond what we know to be the case with both the U.S. and Britain.
By contrast, The Queen appreciates the prime minister's education in statesmanship. Perhaps the real Tony Blair imitated this fiction in his near-Churchillean defense of America's war in Iraq. And as likely he will be pursued by the media and the other forces of modernity as he begins another career, following the end of his service as prime minister. He will have no queen to serve then.