At the Los Angeles premiere of director Stephen Frears' "The Queen" Tuesday night, partygoers anointed Helen Mirren as the inevitable best actress Oscar winner for her bravura turn as the dowdily out-of-touch Queen Elizabeth II, but several Miramax Films marketing staffers were looking like deer frozen in headlights. That's because the last thing anyone wants to have happen this early in the developing awards season is to be named the Oscar frontrunner.
But "The Queen" is in better shape than other movies that have already fallen by the wayside, most notably Steve Zaillian's bellyflop "All the King's Men." As Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" may also prove, it is far preferable to enter awards contention without pretension than to wear your Oscar hopes on your sleeve. Frears knows this well. His studio pictures ("Hero," "Mary Reilly") have been less successful than such smaller films as "My Beautiful Laundrette," "The Grifters" and "Mrs. Henderson Presents." "I retreated from the high budgets," he says. "The art wasn't the problem, it was the money."
"The Queen" has the advantage of starting as a small-scale, homegrown British project that moved on to the world stage at the Venice International Film Festival, where Mirren won the best actress prize, and the New York Film Festival, where it was selected as the opening night film. After three weeks in U.K. cinemas, the drama is a smash -- for British moviegoers, it effectively plays as a sequel to the 2003 telefilm "The Deal." Also from Frears and his "Queen" collaborator, screenwriter Peter Morgan, that project was a Channel 4 dramatization of Prime Minister Tony Blair's relationship with his ally-turned-rival Gordon Brown, who is now poised to succeed him. As Blair, "The Deal" starred Michael Sheen, who returns to play the prime minister in "The Queen."
"Morgan suddenly found his voice dealing with real-life authority figures in 'The Deal'," says Sheen. "He finds a way to release humor while still taking the themes seriously. He treats people humanely. At the end of the piece you feel sympathy for everybody. His themes of power, authority and self-deception are present in 'The Queen' as well." (Morgan also wrote another Oscar contender, "The Last King of Scotland.")
Following the rapturous response to "The Deal," its producers, Andy Harries, Christine Langan and Tracey Seaward, pursued the story of Blair's 1997 confrontation with the Queen after Princess Diana's death, and lined up Mirren to play Elizabeth. This time it had to be a feature, Frears explains, "because it's the Queen. She lives in big rooms and houses, and you need money to do all that, you couldn't make it cheap enough for television."
Part of the filmmakers' challenge was to walk the tightrope of revealing these characters without satirizing them -- at a time when making fun of the royal family is daily sport in Britain. "It's completely ridiculous to have a modern country ruled over by this archaic family," says Frears. "They are in many respects a ridiculous family. They are very good at surviving. It was unusual to have taken them seriously. It hasn't been done ever before."
Building on his sources from "The Deal," Morgan dug into his research, even renting a cottage at Balmoral and interviewing workers about the Queen driving around the countryside in her Land Rover. The Queen's close affinity with animals inspired Morgan to use a noble stag that has eluded hunters for years as a metaphor. "If you make a film about a woman who doesn't engage in psycho-babble," says Frears, "it's a problem for a filmmaker. A scene like that gives you the opportunity to show she does have feelings."
The shock of the movie is that Mirren is able to make this stodgy powerful holdover of the Victorian Age deeply sympathetic. "That's Helen," says Frears. "You had to have that, in the end. The Queen, who is now 80, is more loved than ever."
As for the Queen's finger-snapping control of her beloved Corgis, "that was Helen, too" says Frears. "She knows how to do all that. Any dog would tremble when she'd come down the street. If she hadn't been so brilliant there'd be no film. I go white at the thought. The idea of playing that part is so impertinent. It's a very cheeky thing to have done. The film itself is not cheeky. The idea of making the film was cheeky. We seem by the grace of God to have gotten away with it."
Every member of the British middle-class was brought up the same way as the Queen, says Frears. "We were not made a fuss of. We were sent away to school. It's so deep in our psyches. She grew up during the war. Given that she was one of the richest women in the world, at the same time, her life was based on sacrifice, duty and discipline. That week (that Diana died) was the only time that she sort of made a mistake."
The "barbaric" arranged marriage between Prince Charles and Diana Spencer "was a catastrophe," Frears continues. "She turned out to be not what they thought she was: a well-brought-up English girl. She turned out to be like a Hollywood actress or a rock star. Diana's embracing of pop culture caused the complete conflict."
Wouldn't the Royals have been better off marrying Charles to the love of his life, Camilla Bowles? Their thinking was "prehistoric," says Frears. "They didn't want other men saying, 'I've slept with the Queen.' He was supposed to marry a virgin."
The Queen got into a disastrous PR mess when she and her family withdrew to their Balmoral Castle retreat in Scotland and failed to express any remorse over the death of Diana. When the British tabloids turned on the Queen, the recently elected Blair was forced to telephone and persuade her to make a public statement of grief. "It's about a woman experiencing doubt," says Frears.
Blair always understood how to manipulate the media. "He learned that from (President) Clinton," says Frears, who wishes he had done more in the film to underscore the role of the press in the whole Diana affair. "The first ones attacked were the paparazzi who pursued her. The press was keen to deflate that criticism. Their attack on the Queen was systematic and deliberate."
Frears did shoot footage of a Diana lookalike in order to restage her death. "We couldn't just let the death be offscreen," he says. "We had to be willing to stand at the tunnel."
The director played out his instincts in the editing room as to what he could get away with and admits that he erred on the side of caution: "It seemed a good idea. We're making a film about a restrained woman. We were praised in England for being fair. It's difficult because they can't answer back. We could have made a much more cynical portrait. I'm prepared to admit to being a Queenist if not a monarchist."
Frears even made his choice of cinematographer Affonso Beato based on employing a dignified approach to shooting a "stately figure," says Frears, rather than have the camera go "all wobbling." By contrast, Frears shot the relatively humble Prime Minister's digs at 10 Downing Street, where Blair does the supper dishes, in 16 mm. "He was a modern man, up all night with his babies under his arm," Frears says. "He was a popular man elected by a huge majority, thought to be the voice of the people."
It will not be lost on American moviegoers that Blair's deference to the Queen is reflected in his ardent support of two American presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, which has proven politically damaging for him in the U.K. "It was galling to be making a film about Blair at his best while he's at his worst," says Frears. "(For Blair) to extend sympathy after 9/11 was entirely understandable, but to go from that to slavish support of the Iraq War has brought him down."