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by Crystal Downing

God Savor The Queen

If you haven't seen the 2006 film, catch up with it now.

The horrific death of Lady Di in 1997 fueled lurid speculation about monarchical jealousy and murderous conspiracy, turning the glamorous princess into a near martyr. As a result, her ethical commitments have continued to generate far more media attention than the sacrificial service of Mother Teresa, who died several days later.

Using archival footage of the hagiographic media storm over Diana's death, the 2006 film The Queen brilliantly reconstitutes the ethical issues surrounding the event. Rather than delivering a Hollywood cliché—the tragic demise of a beautiful woman with a heart of gold—The Queen focuses on a frigid and frumpy middle aged monarch to present an issue relevant to most religious traditions today: the ethics of tradition itself. Like church leaders who struggle to negotiate when to keep traditional doctrines and practices of the faith untouched and when to change them for contemporary relevance, the film's Queen Elizabeth must determine how to maintain monarchical tradition in light of the furor over Diana's unorthodox death.

The film begins with televised reports about the 1997 campaign of Tony Blair for Prime Minister, celebrated as the Labour Party candidate who overturned, in a landslide election, the 18-year hegemony of British Conservatives. After a montage of quick takes showing Blair energetically walking to the polls with his family and waving to his shouting fans, the film cuts to a contrasting image of stasis: Queen Elizabeth, standing stock still in traditional monarchical robes as an artist paints her portrait. When she stiffly asks him whether he made it to the polls, the white-haired painter reports that he voted, but not for Blair: "We are in danger of losing too much about this country as it is." The queen responds with a satisfied smirk, "You are not a modernizer," a term applied to Blair multiple times during the film. Thus, before the credits are even over, we have had symbolized for us the central agon of the film: the tension between the static preservation of tradition and the staccato mobility of change.

Brilliant employment of the mise-en-scene contributes to the tension. On walls that frame Queen Elizabeth we see paintings of ancient ancestors, their images only a little more static than the living queen's. In contrast, an electric guitar hangs on a wall behind the frenetic Tony Blair, alluding to his participation in a rock band during his law school days. Furthermore, while a butler presents china tea cups to Elizabeth and Philip in a lavishly appointed, old-fashioned drawing room, the Blairs sit around a tacky table in a kitchen cluttered with containers and toys—until Cherie Blair instructs her husband to clear the dishes. And, of course, Helen Mirren's queen dresses like, well, the queen, looking as though she stepped out of a 1950s movie, something especially pronounced in outdoor scenes at Balmoral Castle, her head covered with a Babushka. Michael Sheen's Blair, in contrast, appears to have emerged from a reality TV show, in one scene wearing a Newcastle United football jersey with the name Blair and the number ten flapping on the back.

The difference between static and staccato is further underlined in contrasting scenes after several phone conversations between the two leaders. When the queen hangs up, we are given long takes of her silent, almost frozen face, which sometimes rotates slowly on its immobile neck to contemplatively stare out the window. In contrast, when Blair hangs up he exasperatedly rakes fingers through his hair, jumps up from his chair, and turns his whole body to the window, emitting comments or snorts of incredulity.

The phone conversations focus on Lady Di, who has just died in the Parisian car crash. The queen tells Blair that a private funeral sponsored by Diana's birth family, the Spencers, is most appropriate, since, having divorced Prince Charles, she is no longer a member of the royal family. But the populace, devastated by Diana's accidental death, demand something more. They want the queen to leave her Scottish retreat at Balmoral in order to pay her respects at Diana's coffin. They want the queen to make a public statement about the tragedy. And, most grating of all to the monarchy, they want the flag over Buckingham Palace to be flown at half mast, even though the 400 year-old symbol has never been used for such a purpose. The tabloids soon turn the queen's quietism into an ethical issue, suggesting that the royal family's decision to stay in Scotland implies culpability in the death.

Blair is thus thrust into the role of preserving a wounded monarchy that those closest to him want to abolish. His ethical burden, which the queen must share with him, is therefore to change tradition without destroying it. Together they participate in what Dale T. Irvin calls "traditioning": an ethical practice of preserving tradition by transforming it. As Irvin explains it in Christian Histories, Christian Traditioning, "The task of effective remembering does not go on apart from the task of practicing justice. Both the past and the present are evaluated through the lens of ethical judgment." [1]

In the film, the Queen obviously represents preservation of the past while Blair represents change in the present. When he is told, "There's no precedent for the funeral of a former HRH," Blair disgustedly responds "Precedent? Where do they find these people?" For him, tradition—or precedent—seems irrelevant to honoring Diana's memory. In contrast, after he tells the queen that she needs to give up her commitment to a private funeral for the sake of the people's grief, Elizabeth entirely appeals to precedent, arguing that "a period of restrained grief and sober private mourning" is "the way we do things in this country: quietly, with dignity. That's what the rest of the world has always admired us for." Despite her obstinacy, Blair ends the phone conversation with a breezy "Let's keep in touch," eliciting from Elizabeth a scathing "Yes. Let's," her contempt for Blair's superficial slang freezing the very breath with which she speaks it.

Of course, they do "keep in touch" as public denunciations of the monarchy intensify. Their need to negotiate a middle ground, through an act of traditioning, is represented by their symmetrical alignment with equal but opposite confidants—a male and female to the political left of Blair; a male and female to the right of Elizabeth. Blair's spouse and his chief consultant repeatedly derogate the monarchy and its traditions, the latter snidely telling Blair to ask the Queen "if she greased the brakes" of Diana's death car. In contrast, Elizabeth's spouse and her chief consultant (Philip and the Queen Mother) condemn the modernizers. It becomes clear that both Blair and Elizabeth must defy their closest interpretive communities in order for traditioning to take place.

The queen's first step occurs as she watches from her bed a rerun of the famous television interview in which Diana meekly comments, "There were three of us in this marriage; so it was a bit crowded." When Philip enters the bedroom, Elizabeth comments on Diana's marriage to Charles: "Maybe we are partly to blame. We encouraged the match. We signed off on it. You were especially enthusiastic!" Philip testily replies, "She was a nice girl … THEN. And I was sure he'd give the other one up; or at least make sure his wife toed the line." The shot cuts to clips of Camilla Parker Bowles on the television screen, making all the more ironic Philip's subsequent appeal to tradition: "Isn't that what everyone does?" Helen Mirren delivers the queen's scathing reply, "Is it?" with a look of cynicism that, by itself, warranted her Oscar. As she peers over her glasses with a scowl, we infer that Elizabeth is facing the ugly side of royal tradition.

The very next scene she faces something else. The stuck-in-the-mud queen literally gets stuck in the mud. She has driven a jeep by herself out into the royal hunting grounds where Philip has taken Diana's sons, with a bevy of baying hounds, to hunt a 14-point stag. Driving through a shallow stream, she breaks the drive shaft on a rock and the jeep settles into the river bed. After looking at the undercarriage and uttering "Oh, stupid," Elizabeth leans against the mired jeep and begins to cry. Just at that moment, she sees the majestic stag staring at her from a rise on the shore. "Oh, Beauty," she cries out with epiphanic awe, her trance broken only when guns fire in the distance. Knowing that baying hounds are in pursuit of this exquisite creature, she shoos the stag away, and when he vanishes, she laughs for the first and only time in the film.

Embedded in the very word "tradition" is the possibility of betrayal. Its Latin root, meaning "to hand over," gave us "traitor" and "traduce." Tradition is something that is "handed over" from generation to generation—always with the possibility that the receivers of tradition will betray it, "handing it over" to new meanings and purposes. Significantly, the Greek word for "handing over"—paradidomi—is used in the New Testament to describe not only the "handing over" of Christ's words to his followers but also the "handing over" of Christ to his enemies. These two senses come together in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered (paredoka) to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed (paredideto) took bread" (11:23). The etymological connection between delivery and betrayal leads Irvin to an interesting conclusion: "In every act of authentic traditioning there remains something of an act of treason, otherwise it would not be an authentic act of handing over, of change. Without a bit of treason performed in the act of handing over, the tradition remains inseparably bound to the world in which it was formed, hence not only irrelevant but incomprehensible." [2]

The queen, then, by refusing to "hand over" the dignified stag to its killers, successfully maintains, or "hands over," the tradition, keeping the hunt alive by keeping the stag alive. This action parallels her change in response to Diana's death. After great struggle, as with her jeep in the mud, Elizabeth "hands over," or betrays, ancient traditions of the monarchy in order to keep alive its dignity.

The filmmakers explicitly tie the stag to the monarchy, first through a shot-reverse shot connection between her majesty and the majestic stag. Second, after the stag scene they cut directly to Blair, who provides a foil to the queen's experience of beauty as he worries aloud, "I think there's something ugly about the way everyone has started to bully [the queen]." Hence, just as Elizabeth begins to see the beauty of defying—or shooing away—tradition, Blair begins to see the ugliness of defying—or bullying—tradition.

This doubleness in defiance—as in the doubleness of the phrase "to hand over"—is reinforced through a gun motif. Prince Charles, after returning from Paris with Diana's coffin, reports that when he heard a car backfire on a Parisian street, he initially thought it was an assassination attempt. Later, as the royal family surveys flowers left outside the gates of Balmoral, a motorcycle backfires, causing Charles to jerk his head up in alarm. In both instances, something innocuous has been interpreted as potentially deadly—much the way the royal family interprets innocuous desires about the funeral as deadly to tradition.

But, counterbalancing these innocuous back-firings, an actual gun-firing turns deadly. In the scene after the motorcycle scares Charles, Philip tells Elizabeth that the elusive stag was finally shot—by a commoner no less—at a neighboring estate. The queen drives to the estate, where she asks to see the dead creature. After the warden tells her it was "an Imperial 14-pointer," her imperial highness points to a bullet scar on its face, sadly commenting, "It was wounded," reminding us that the reputation of the monarchy has also been wounded. Significantly, the stag's head has already been severed from its body, ready to become an inert trophy like the many stuffed animal heads we see hanging—in between ancestral portraits—from the walls of Balmoral Castle. We get a sense that if the queen refuses to respond to the requests of the people, her position as head of state will be so severed from the body politic that she might as well crawl up on the wall with the other severed heads and unrecognizable portraits.

Hence, unlike the imperial stag, the imperial family survives its wounding—due to Elizabeth's "traditioning." Betraying the advice of her traditionalist husband and mother, she steps outside the walls of Buckingham palace to join commoners surveying the thousands of gifts left for Diana. There she suffers aspersions on her character, reading notes left to Diana that say, You're too good for them; They don't deserve you; They have your blood on their hands. As Elizabeth reads these notes, we see the wounding of the words reflected on her face. But we also hear television newscasters comment on her actions: "This is extremely unusual, almost unprecedented"—that word again—and "The last time the queen was among her people was the day the war in Europe ended." Recognizing an act of traditioning, then, they begin to sound charitable, describing the queen's actions as "generous," asserting that "the quarrel is ended."

Significantly, in the midst of this scene the film cuts to Tony Blair's office to reinforce the parallel between Elizabeth and the stag. After his chief aide makes a comment about Elizabeth's frigid inhumanity, Blair blows up: "When you get it wrong you really get it wrong. That woman has given her whole life in service to her people: fifty years doing a job she never wanted to do, a job she watched kill her father. She's executed it with honor, dignity, and, as far as I can tell, without a single blemish, and we're all baying for her blood—all because she's struggling to lead the world in mourning for someone who threw everything she offered back in her face."

By crosscutting these scenes of Elizabeth outside her palace and Blair inside his office, the filmmakers imply that the queen and the prime minister alike have crossed out of their ideological comfort zones into the arena of the other: change embracing tradition and tradition embracing change. Indeed, when the camera cuts back to Elizabeth's wounded face, we see her force a smile toward the commoners, as though having learned a lesson from Lady Di. For in the interview Elizabeth earlier watched from her bed, Diana answers the question "Do you think you will ever be queen," with "No. But I'd like to be queen of people's hearts." This, of course, inflects the film's title. As queen of people's hearts, the People's Princess, as Blair so dubbed her, parallels the imperial stag as well, badly wounded by the royal family, if  killed by commoners. Significantly, the word "stalking" is repeatedly used to describe the hunt after the 14-pointer, reminding us of the press stalking Diana, shown in several archival images.

Following Diana's lead, then, Elizabeth chokes down her pride in order to engage the people's hearts. Turning away from wounding notes to look in people's faces, she asks a little girl holding some flowers if she would like her, the queen, to place them among the other offerings. When the girl says "No," Elizabeth's pained expression returns. But then the girl says "They're for you." Blinking back astonished tears, the queen takes the flowers, at which point formerly antagonistic commoners slowly start curtsying.

An act of traditioning has been consummated. Elizabeth has given up her desire to rigidly maintain tradition, and the people have given up their desire to viciously destroy it. Elizabeth and her subjects have entered into what Irving calls a "dialogical relationship between present and past," a relationship that acknowledges the particularity of ethical situations rather than absolutizing either tradition or anti-tradition. As Irvin notes, "Both those who hold to the detraditionalization thesis and those who support the notion of traditions being unchanging and unchangeably given, fail to recognize the dynamic process of rejuvenation and re-creation that has taken place across the centuries and continues today to give traditions ongoing life." [3]

The essence of this exceptional film is captured in a single 20-second shot. The opening credits end with a tilt of the camera up the rigid body of Elizabeth posing for her portrait. When the shot reaches her face, the image is so still that we assume we are looking at the finished painting. But just as the title The Queen appears in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, Helen Mirren's eyes suddenly shift to her left. What she sees is beyond her frame—as it is beyond our own.

Crystal Downing, professor of English and Film Studies at Messiah College, is the author of two books about the relationship between faith and culture: Writing Performances: The Stages of Dorothy L. Sayers (Palgrave Macmillan) and How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith: Questioning Truth in Language, Philosophy, and Art (IVP Academic).

1. Dale T. Irvin, Christian Histories, Christian Traditioning: Rendering Accounts (Orbis, 1998), p. 128.

2. Ibid., p. 41.

3. Ibid., p. 9.

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