Urban Cinefile
"At the studios there are a lot of scams going on, where they will cash cheques for actors that don't exist, where they will charge negative cost of a film, double the real amount ."  -Jackie Collins on Hollywood
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



Audacious is the only word for it, yet The Queen is far from sensational – except as a piece of dramatised documentary cinema. Director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan explain how they approached the most controversial subject in modern monarchy.

“It will be controversial because it exists,” says director Stephen Frears. “The gap between what people are expecting it to be and what it is will be very great. I’m expecting journalists to look for trouble and the film itself doesn’t supply trouble. The act of impertinence is in the making of the film, it has nothing shocking or scandalous to say or that isn’t in public domain, but the very act of treating Queen like a woman rather than like a cut-out of a sovereign is itself shocking.”

Frears, whose credits include Academy Award-nominated films like Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters and Dirty Pretty Things, needed little persuading to tackle one of the most intriguing movie projects of the era.

"strength and weakness"

“It is very hard to find subjects that have some vitality, subjects that haven’t been flogged to death,” says the director. “By good fortune I’ve had original work for the last three or four years. This project was very appealing to me, partly because it meant I would be working with Peter Morgan again and partly for the subject matter. The film is about the conflict between an old world and new world. It’s about tradition, which has been both a strength and weakness in this country.”

The story is perfectly linear: when news of Princess Diana’s death in a Paris car accident breaks upon a shocked British public, HRH Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) retreats behind the walls of Balmoral Castle with Prince Phillip (James Cromwell) and her family, unable to comprehend the public response to the tragedy. For New Labour’s Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), the popular and newly elected Prime Minister, the people's need for reassurance and support from their leaders is palpable – and seized upon by the media. As the unprecedented outpouring of emotion grows ever stronger, Blair must find a way to reconnect the Queen with the British public.

“We were keen to convey the idea that although Diana is dead, her presence is there all the time,” says Frears. “There aren’t many scenes where the television isn’t on. Adam Curtis (archival researcher) brings his own unique sensibility to the archive sections but also he has incredible knowledge of where to find the good footage. We needed some of those very familiar shots, the shots that we are all aware of, such as Cherie opening the door in her nightie the day after the election, but we also wanted to surprise the audience with some of the images that Adam has found. There are two or three sequences when the archive is blended together so that you get a fairly seamless understanding of events.”

“Frears' keen directorial eye is key to the success of The Queen. When you are dealing with complex and somewhat controversial matters, you must have a director with gravitas, serious gravitas, and Stephen has that in spades,” says producer Andy Harries. “He is a proper director, not just experienced, he’s also incredibly smart. These are all rare qualities. He’s also a risk-taker; he’s restless and moves from one different type of film to another. He has a genuinely inquisitive mind; he’s a genuine enfant terrible.”

One of the crucial elements of The Queen is its forensic attention to detail. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the subject matter, the film was certain to attract censure if it was anything less than scrupulously authentic in what it portrayed, from how the Queen is served breakfast to how she behaves with her immediate family behind closed doors. As he was writing the screenplay, Peter Morgan had a team of researchers filtering information, finding sources close to the royal family and sifting through archive press and television material. It was a process that the team had already used with considerable success on The Deal.

Advising them on the royal family were Robert Lacey and Ingrid Seward. A world-renowned author whose books are meticulously researched and eschew sensationalism, Lacey’s work include “Royal: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II” (2002), “The Queen Mother” (1987), “Princess” (1982) and the first serious biography of the Queen, “Majesty: Elizabeth II and the House of Windsor” (1977). Seward is editor in chief of Majesty magazine, a well-respected commentator on the royals and had unrivalled access to Princess Diana when she wrote her best-sellers “The Queen & Di: The Untold Story” (2001) and “Diana: An Intimate Portrait” (1997).

“I went to see everyone and anyone who would talk,” recalls Morgan. “There are a lot of biographers of both the Royal Family and the Blairs and they all have their sources from equerries to secretaries to butlers to maids to civil servants. There’s a lot of material out there; it’s a question of sifting the real from the embellished.”

"etiquette and protocol "

While issues of etiquette and protocol were straightforward - it was easy to find consensus on how servants addressed the Queen, for example - Morgan had to tread more carefully when imagining what his characters said particularly in more private and intimate moments. “Of course, as a writer I have to speculate,” he says. “But, it becomes easier when, for example, I talk to someone who spoke to Prince Charles on the night of Diana’s death. I know what he said so I could write that scene fairly accurately. The more snippets of information you gather, the more you can work out how reliable the sources are in the material you’re using as research.

“My method is to write what I want them to say and then research it,” he continues. “Surprisingly, more often than not, I got it right. There are scenes that are complete fabrication, the scenes of the Queen in Balmoral estate where she encounters the stag, but there are others that you can take a very educated guess at. For example, why did Tony Blair defend the Queen so strongly? Well, we know he’s a political pragmatist, we know he’s rather more conservative than people think, and we know his mother would have been the same age as the Queen if she’d been alive at the time, and would probably have similar characteristics to the Queen. So that’s how I can write a scene in which Cherie theorises about why her husband is behaving as he is.”

Published December 21, 2006


Email this article


The Queen – Australian release December 26, 2006

© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020