The movie opens with Tony Blair's historic victory in the British polls -- the first time in 18 years that the British government has changed hands, with the Labour Party promising all sorts of sweeping changes to "shake things up and modernize" in Britain.
This contrasts with life in Buckingham Palace, which is the epitome of timeless tradition and nonexistent change. The Queen sits for her latest portrait and discusses politics with the artist -- a man very much opposed to Tony Blair and his change for the sake of change rhetoric. The artist tells the Queen that tradition means something to him. She smiles, admitting that she would like to vote, just once, not to express any voice but to have the experience of going to the polls. The artist reminds her that, as Sovereign, she will never have that right, but she is the one who forms the government.
The next morning, Tony Blair is declared the winner and is invited to Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen for permission to form a government in her name. One of the Queen's valets welcomes Tony Blair and his rather caustic and anti-monarchist wife Cherie to the palace. Cherie has a very negative attitude and frowns on all the tradition and rules of protocol that are explained to her. Cherie criticizes Blair for "falling for all of this" and for revering the Queen. Blair tells his wife that this is British tradition and is important to the country.
The Queen, meanwhile, meets with her personal secretary who gives her some insights into Blair and his wife, noting Mrs. Blair is a vocal anti-monarchist who resents having to curtsy and do other traditional things in terms of protocol. The Queen is obviously not amused by this, because she is portrayed from the start of the movie as someone who genuinely believes in the traditions she lives with and protects. She is not the sort of person who stops to consider whether a curtsy is a silly custom or not -- she just honors and maintains the custom because this is how things have always been done; under her watch, things will not change.
Blair and his wife arrive at the Queen's receiving room and Blair is ushered inside. He's nervous, and obviously in awe of Her Majesty. The Queen stands in the middle of the room with her pocketbook around her arm, looking more like a grandmother waiting for a bus than the Queen of England. She's amused by Blair's nervousness and rattles him a little. He is clearly not prepared for the exact traditions the Prime Minister must go through in this moment -- this seems odd because you would assume that he would have been briefed before coming to the palace. Blair starts to ask the Queen if he can form a government, but she interrupts him and tells him that, no, this is how things must be done: the Queen will invite him to form a government, in her constitutional capacity to advise, inform, and warn the British Parliament. The Queen has to prod Blair to answer at one point, when she asks him, "Is this alright with you, that I have asked you to form a government in my name? This is where you say Yes." The Queen's secretary enters and whispers something in her ear, at which point the Queen excuses herself and dismisses Blair, who shuffles off star-struck. The Queen wonders whether she granted Blair enough time, having spent only 15 minutes with him, and tells her secretary that she does not want to appear rude.
This scene is interesting because it forms the first of two bookends in the film -- here the Queen is totally in charge and is managing Blair. At the end of the film, about 6 months later, their roles will be swapped.
As Cherie and Tony Blair leave the palace, Cherie asks why the meeting with the Queen was so short; Blair tells her that she had some sort of emergency, but didn't know what. Cherie chimes in with, "I bet it was about Diana. It's always something with Diana".
The film jumps ahead to late summer 1997 and shows some of Princess Diana's antics at the time: news clips of her on boats with Dodi Al Fayeed, shots of her at various parties and premieres, images of Diana touring hospitals, footage of her talking about land mines, etc. These are real clips of Diana - who is not portrayed by an actress in the film (the only main character who is not played by an actor). There are also clips of Diana being chased by the press through the years, including several shots of her getting into cars and speeding away from them.
Then, there is a re-enactment of Diana leaving the Ritz Hotel, climbing into the back of a black car, and the car speeding away from four large motorcycles-- the camera zooms into the entrance of the Paris tunnel that Diana crashed into and then fades to black.
The next scene is at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where the Queen and the royal family are spending the summer. The Queen's secretary has awakened the entire staff and there is a flurry of activity -- most of the staff are wearing mourning black already. The secretary wakes up the Queen and tells her there is an emergency: it's about Diana. Prince Phillip, the Queen's husband, says, "Well, what has she done now?" The secretary tells the Queen and Phillip that Diana has been in a serious accident. Phillip appears to shrug it off and goes back to bed -- if anyone is a villain in this film, it's Phillip, who clearly did not like Diana at all.
The Queen, Phillip, the Queen Mum, and Prince Charles all assemble in a TV room inside Balmoral. The portrayal of the Queen Mum is a good source of laughs -- she's played like a cranky, eccentric grandma who always says what everyone else is thinking but could never get away with saying. The royals watch the BBC for the latest updates on what is going on. Phillip aks what Diana was doing in Paris when she was supposed to be in Londong. The Queen says, "Well, you know how she is". The Queen Mum then mutters something about how Diana should learn to stay put in one place, but no one listens to her (just like anyone's cranky old grandma). Moments later, the secretary returns and informs them that the British Embassy in Paris has just called and announced that Diana has died in Paris. The Queen is visibly shocked, saddened, and cries. Phillip just sits in his chair and flips the channel on the TV.
Charles has a min-nervous breakdown and cries and shouts over Diana's death. There is a scene where the young princes are notified and just sit on their bed numb. The Queen stands in the hallway wanting to comfort her grandchildren, but not really knowing how. She's paralyzed because you can tell she wants to give them hugs and comfort them, but because she is the Queen she has to be this statue and paradigm of strength in crisis. No matter what bad things people say about the Queen and how she reacted to this tragedy, you can see in this portrayal that she does have normal feelings -- like any grandmother - it's just that her position and protocols get in her way.
Charles and the Queen have a quiet argument about airplanes -- in that Charles wants to fly to Paris immediately to attend to Diana's remains, but the Queen is afraid of the press criticizing her for extravagance if Charles uses a royal plane. The press constantly criticize the Windsors for eveything they do, so the Queen has apparently gotten into a mindset of doing as little as possible to keep their ability to criticize her to the minimum. Charles argues that Diana is the mother of the Future King of England and that her body cannot be brought back in any old box. The Queen Mum tells Charles there is always an emergency plane on standby in case anything should happen to the Queen Mum, so Charles can use her plane. He then makes arrangements to head to Paris.
The Queen receives the first of many calls from Tony Blair regarding Diana's death -- Blair speaks to the Queen from his home, which is littered with children's toys and games, even his own private office is filled with toys. It's a stark contrast to the Queen in her surroundings in Balmoral, which are incredibly organized. The Queen and other royals are all in mourning black, but she informs Blair that because Diana divorced Charles and forfeited her title as Her Royal Highness (HRH) she is no longer a member of the royal family - thus, the Spencer Family, Diana's family, will be in charge of the funeral. The Queen told Blair that she has her grandchildren to think about and that the royals are treating this as a very private matter. Blair seems dumbfounded, because he knows this is not a private matter. The Queen tersely hangs up the phone when Phillip enters to remind the Queen she has things to do. Blair can't believe she hung up on him -- and it is obvious he does not fully understand how the royal family operates.
Prince Phillip is on a completely different planet from everyone else - he behaves truly stupidly throughout the movie and is the main source of all the problems the royal family faced with Diana's death. He becomes obsessed with taking the boys hunting to get their mind off Diana's death. The Queen does not want her grandchildren around guns and tells her staff to make sure Phillip does not give them guns in the woods. Instead, the boys and Phillip are going stalking - which appears to be tracking large animals and identifying where they are so that you can come back later and kill them. The Queen is afraid of the media snapping photos of the princes with guns right after their mother was killed.
The theme of hunting will come back again and again for the rest of the movie -- especially as Phillip becomes obsessed with killing a particular 14 point stag that he heard was on the estate. This seems to be a rare event, even though the Balmoral royal estate is 40,000 acres large. The stag becomes a metaphor for Diana and how she was hunted by the press (and how Diana was the Roman goddess of the hunt, personified often with stags).
The next part of the film is a back and forth between the Queen and Tony Blair, as Blair is clearly seen as being the one in touch with both reality and the mood of the public. The Queen, ensconced in Balmoral, has no real idea what's going on in London, despite receiving the daily papers and watching the BBC. It becomes apparent that the Queen has grown so accustomed to negative headlines that she ignores them a great deal -- dismissing them with comments like, "Oh, they are just trying to sell their papers again. The public will not buy into this nonsense". It's very tragic because the tabloids in Britain are generally so nasty and sensational - so that when they were accurately reporting the mood of the people and the growing anger at the Queen, the royals didn't listen because they thought the papers were crying wolf again. Blair, however, could read the writing on the wall and did his best to get through to the Queen -- she would not listen to him, though, based mainly on his inexperience and his short term as Prime Minister. The Queen was accustomed to advising and warning Prime Ministers, not the other way around.
As more people left flowers at the gates of Buckingham Palace, the mood started to get nastier. In addition to flowers, people started leaving notes, saying Diana was better than the royal family and that they did not deserve her. Blair's secretary writes the famous speech where Blair calls Diana "the people's princess, beloved by the world". Blair will always be remembered for that speech, his first real splash with the public -- his popularly leaps while the Queen's sags during this crisis. All the while, Blair's wife nags him for helping the royals deal with this mess -- she wants the Queen to hang herself and show the public how out of touch and irrelevant she is. Blair reminds his wife at several points that the monarch is part of the British constitutional system and that as Prime Minister it is his duty to advise the crown in this time of crisis. Blair's wife is portrayed as a particularly mean spirited and vicious piece of work.
The headlines in the papers call for the flag at Buckingham Palace to be lowered to half mast and for the Queen to come to London to pay her respects to Diana's body. When Prince Phillip hears this, he is enraged. He launches into a crazy diatribe about royal heritage -- since there was currently no flag flying at all over Buckingham Palace...the royal standard only flies over the palace when the Queen is in residence. Since she was in Scotland, there was no flag to lower to half mast. The papers demanded the half mast treatment anyway. The Queen Mum agrees with Phillip, since King George V (Elizabeth's father) did not receive a flag at half mast when he died -- and he was the King of England and Emperor of India at the time. Phillip and the Queen Mum convince Elizabeth that this will all blow over in a few days and that she, as sovereign, should not be bullied by the press and "a few hysterical people in London creating a show". This conversation all takes place while the royals are having a bucolic little picnic of lamb stew on the Balmoral Estate, a million miles away from the craziness that's happening in London.
Diana died on Sunday and by Wednesday the mood in London is dangerous for the monarchy. The streets are swarmed with lost people. Candles are burning everywhere, a sea of flowers has swelled up to the gates of the palace, signs cursing the Queen and her "cold heart" share space with incredibly sentimental poems to Diana, whom the people now call the Queen of Hearts. London had apparently never seen anything like this, en masse, since the end of World War II in Europe.
Tony Blair meets with his advisors and wonders why the royals are so out of touch -- he tells his people that he has to "save these people from themselves" and tries to reach out to the Queen to come to her senses again. He once more calls her, and Prince Phillip is enraged that the Prime Minister is telephoning again. "Tell him to call back", he barked. Phillip really comes off as a complete jerk in this film. Elizabeth takes the call and neatly organizes the pens and pencils on her desk as the Prime Minister dictates to her what he feels the royals need to do to respond to the situation: lower the flag to half mast at Buckingham, fly to London at once to help her people grieve, grant Diana a full royal funeral, etc. The Queen listens politely but is obviously enraged.
After this conversation, the Queen takes a walk outside with her mother, who was once the Queen of England herself (the Queen Mum was also named Queen Elizabeth, which gets confusing sometimes, as the Queen refers to her mother as Queen Elizabeth and sometimes sounds like she is talking about herself). The Queen Mum tells her daughter that she is one of the best monarchs England has ever had and that she should stand by her guns and not be bullied into breaking protocol. The Queen Mum says that Diana was not a royal anymore and should not be receiving any special treatment, no matter what the crowds in London are saying. The Queen respects her mother immensely, but worries she has lost touch with her people. She wonders if it is indeed time for her to step aside and pass the crown to Charles and a new generation. The Queen Mum chastises her daughter for even thinking this, reminding her that she took an oath, for life, to serve her people until the end. She can never abdicate the throne in favor of Charles. The Queen Mum then says that as long as Elizabeth is Queen, the monarchy will endure -- but the problem will come when Elizabeth is gone (implying that Charles is a complete failure who will most likely ruin everything).
Charles really comes off as an idiot in this movie -- he hugs his sons and tries to comfort them, but is not a strong father. Prince Phillip seems to be the one making all the decisions for what is best for the boys - and this involves lots of stalking in the forest. The boys have been hunting every day since their mother died, since Phillip believes the fresh air is doing them good. Charles, meanwhile, has been speaking privately with Tony Blair, trying to seem like he is on Blair's side while his mother is the one creating problems and keeping the royal family away from London. Blair tells is aid that Charles seems to be setting his own mother up to take a fall while trying to come out of this whole mess clean himself. Charles also believes that someone is trying to assassinate him, as he keeps hearing gunfire at every public event he has participated in since Diana died (he thought someone was trying to kill him when he flew to Paris to pick up Diana's body). Charles is pretty much useless in this whole crisis and often won't speak directly to Blair himself, but sits quietly in a chair listening while he has an aid speak for him.
By Thursday in the week, the tensions in London reach a boiling point. The Queen's private secretary calls Blair and advises him that the Queen is in a state of shock and is paralyzed at the moment: she has not faced anything this traumatic since her father was forced onto the throne at the abdication of Edward VIII. Her father, King George V, never wanted or expected to be king, and the shock of having all this responsibility forced on him eventually killed the man. Elizabeth witnessed the trauma of the abdication and the public's reaction to it. She also lived through World War II, and is of a very different generation than the majority today. Tradition is what got her through the previous traumas in her life -- and tradition is what she turned to in this modern time of trauma. The Queen did not realize that it was paradoxically these same traditions that were endangering her throne in 1997. Blair advised the secretary that someone has to get through to the Queen. The secretary told Blair to keep trying.
The Queen drove herself into the forest to see her grandchildren, who were off hunting with Phillip again, and broke down in the middle of a river on the estate. She's an excellent mechanic, apparently, since that was her job during the war. She calls for assistance to repair the jeep she was driving, and as she waits the stag Phillip has been chasing all week bounds nearby. The Queen is overcome with its majesty and has a quiet moment, staring at the impressive animal. Then, she hears gunfire and scares the stag away, hoping Phillip and the hunting party won't come close to killing it.
When she returns to Balmoral, she receives a call from Blair, once again advising her to rethink her course of action and return to London at once. The Queen acquiesces this time and agrees to all of Blair's stipulations: the flag will be lowered, the royal family will come to London, etc. The Queen sits in the kitchen of the castle, with a babushka on her head, looking more like a tired old grandma than the Queen of England. Her spirits seem totally broken, since she was forced to go against all of her traditions and bend to what the public and Blair wanted.
The Queen agrees to give Diana a royal funeral. In meetings held between the Queen's secretary and Blair's people, they used the plans for Operation Taye Bridge as a basis for Diana's funeral. The Queen Mum becomes startled when she hears this, saying, "Operation Taye Bridge is my funeral. I supervised those plans myself". The Queen Mum seems insulted that Diana is going to have the funeral that she planned for herself -- but instead of 400 soldiers following the coffin, 400 representatives of Diana's charities will be in the procession and instead of various heads of state, Hollywood actors and fashion designers will be invited to attend. The Queen Mum asks, incredulously, "You mean celebrities?" and says the word "celebrities" the way a person would say "circus clowns". She's completely aghast by the whole thing. Later, the night before the Queen's return to London, Prince Phillip advises the Queen not to look at the guest list for the funeral, since it is nothing but a collection of "soap opera actors and a parade of homosexuals, including Elton John who, in a first for Westminster Abbey, will be singing, isn't that just wonderful". The Queen goes to sleep looking completely lost and exhausted.
The next day, she makes her appearance in London, working her way along the gates of the palace, stopping to recognize the flowers, teddy bears, photos, and cards left in Diana's memory. They are vicious at times -- and the Queen is clearly hurt and affected by them all, since they accuse the Queen of being cold and consistently say the royal family has blood on its hands in terms of Diana's death. The Queen then moves along the line of people staring at her, taking pictures of her as if she was an animal at the zoo. She smiles at them and they just gawk at her. She doesn't know if they are going to spit and curse at her. But, the people immediately start to curtsy as the Queen walks by. There is a small child with a bouquet of flowers in the line; the Queen walks up to her and asks if she can place the flowers with the others for the little girl. The child says, "NO" and the Queen seems hurt and taken aback, but the little girls quickly adds, "These are for you". The Queen graciously accepts them, feeling much better after her interaction with the girl.
Immediately following this, the Queen gives her address to the nation, live on British television. She asks the public to remember Diana's many contributions to the world and speaks from her heart as a grandmother and not just a monarch. Following the speech are shots of Diana's actual funeral, with Phillip, Charles, Harry, and William walking with the Earl of Spencer behind the coffin as it made its way to Westminster Abbey. There is a shot of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Elton John, Steven Spielberg, George Michael, and others arriving for the funeral, with lots of shots of people outside watching the funeral on giant screens. The Queen is shown throughout the funeral with a practiced and dignified look on her face, but she still seems totally bewildered by what happened with Diana's death. For the Queen, it was like the entire world went mad in an instant.
After the funeral scenes, the film skips ahead two months to a meeting with Blair at Buckingham Palace. The Queen has just returned from a state visit to India and Pakistan. Blair tries breaking the ice by complimenting the Queen on the great work she did in bringing about talk of accords between those two nations. The Queen wants nothing to do with Blair's flattery and gets right down to business -- she is obviously still upset with him regarding his pushing during the Diana crisis and does not really seem to grasp that Blair genuinely acted in the Queen's best interest while Phillip and the Queen Mum gave horrible advice to Elizabeth. Blair actually apologizes for "pushing and manhandling the Queen". All of a sudden, Elizabeth just pushes those tense clouds away and asks Blair to take a walk with her. It's very weird, but it's as if she allowed the woman inside her to come out in terms of the frigid reception she gave Blair, but then remembered her duties and put her personal feelings aside to play the role she's been playing for 50 years, as sovereign and advisor to the Prime Minister. So, for a moment, it seemed that Blair had the upper hand and was advising and warning the Queen, but at the end of the film she takes back this role and the movie ends with the Queen walking Blair through the palace gardens asking him about his plans for education reform and other pressing issues.
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