There’s no shortage of biopics. Most are mediocre, but the good ones feature great performances by convincing leads. They’re also better when the scripts resist flitting from milestone to milestone (sometimes stretching back to the subject’s childhood) without marinating on what it all means.
Fortunately, The Queen (2006) does all the right things. Rather than mimicking a Wikipedia page and citing every extraordinary episode of the sovereign’s long life, the film focuses on the intimate moments experienced by Her Majesty from August 31 to September 6, 1997. The five-day period marks the time between the unexpected death and internationally-telecast funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Like the BAFTA-winning movie, the pithy script by Peter Morgan received an Academy Award nomination. With dry wit and subtle complexity, the writer gives audiences a behind-the-scenes peek at the inner workings of a vulnerable Royal Family.
Primarily set in drawing rooms, the picture profiles Elizabeth II as she debates whether to follow protocol by not acknowledging the passing of her son’s ex-wife or to give in to the growing pressure from the public, the press, and a newly-elected prime minister to sponsor an elaborate funeral.
Within this simple story structure, a nuanced snapshot of the Queen’s personality is successfully captured. It doesn’t hurt that the Oscar-nominated direction of Stephen Frears weaves in archival footage for authenticity, and uses both 35mm and 16mm film to visually differentiate the established traditions of the Royals and the contemporary concerns of the people.
Apart from the questionable casting of Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms), the supporting players are believable as Prince Philip (James Cromwell) and the Blairs (Michael Sheen and Helen McCrory). In fact, Sheen also portrayed Tony Blair in The Deal (2003) and The Special Relationship (2010).
At the core of the movie is Helen Mirren, the only actress to play both Queen Elizabeth I (in 2005’s miniseries Elizabeth I) and Queen Elizabeth II on screen. Due to her similar physicality to the latter, Mirren again portrayed Elizabeth II in the stage play The Audience (2013) for which she received a Tony and a Laurence Olivier Award.
Instead of relying on makeup and prosthetics as other actresses (Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in 2002’s The Hours; Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in 2003’s Monster; Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose; and Jessica Chastain in 2021’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye) did to win Oscars, all it took was a wig, a pair of glasses, and a babushka to transform Mirren into a regal doppelgänger.
Of course, it’s the actress’s masterfully layered performance that makes The Queen memorable. This is especially true when it comes to the film’s most poetic scene wherein the titular character empathizes with a hunted stag in the wild.
As expected, Mirren (who was appointed Dame by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003) scored an Academy Award for the film. Her tour de force turn is among Oscar’s best Best Actress biopic victors: Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker (1962), Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), and Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999).
Mirren’s acclaimed portrayal makes her the only lead actress to receive top accolades from all of “The Big Four” — the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Circle, and National Society of Film Critics. She also picked up a BAFTA, SAG, Satellite Award, and Critics’ Choice Movie Award as well as being named Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival.
In addition to the Oscar, Dame Helen won a Golden Globe for The Queen, both of which she dedicated to Elizabeth II.