When screenwriter Peter Morgan set out to portray Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, he depicted a distant monarch, clueless and a little appalled by the massive outpouring of grief after the death of her former daughter-in-law, Diana.
“I wrote about a cold, emotionally detached, haughty, difficult, prickly, private, uncommunicative, out-of-touch bigot,” Morgan told Britain’s Evening Standard not long after the film, “The Queen,” hit theaters.
Newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair was the man with his finger on the public’s trembling pulse, dubbing Diana “the people’s princess” and positioning himself as the lightning rod for the thousands who stood weeping outside Kensington Palace, while the queen remained locked in chilly isolation in her Scottish castle.
What a difference a decade makes.
Much as the character herself foresaw in the film, the queen and prime minister appear to have traded places in the public’s estimation in the 10 years since that memorable week after Diana’s death.
Blair is struggling through his third term and battling public hostility over the Iraq war, corruption scandals and failures in the reforms that were supposed to be the heart of his New Labor movement. Even his party is eager for his departure.
The queen, meanwhile, is appreciated for the very detached demeanor that has allowed her to remain on the throne through 54 years and 10 prime ministers.
Indeed, many Britons look back on that emotional week after Diana’s death with a sense of perplexity resembling a collective hangover.
“It did seem at the time as though the queen had missed the post-Diana mood, or had underestimated it, and had been defeated by her daughter-in-law, even in death. But now I wonder,” Minette Marrin wrote in the Sunday Times not long ago after seeing “The Queen,” which has garnered six Oscar nominations.
“This film is evidence of how shallow the Diana effect has proved to be. No longer does Diana appear as the unblemished victim, the standard-bearer of feeling and truth against the massed forces of establishment repression.... No longer does the queen appear unfeeling or unsympathetic.”
Margaret Lucey, a mobile phone company employee from the middle England town of Newark, said she went to London the day after Diana’s death and added flowers to the heap at Kensington Palace.
“I wandered around, just feeling the atmosphere, really. It was like a crowd mentality,” she said. “And at the time, there was a very negative attitude toward the royal family, and [Diana] was seen as a victim.”
Since then, Lucey said, she has come to appreciate the “buttoned-up” approach for which the monarch was so criticized.
Colin Campbell, a retired electrical engineer from Nottingham, said Diana was “a nice girl” with her heart in the right place. “But the trouble was, she was not brought up in a royal environment,” he said. “Diana was too human. And in the British royal family, you cannot be too human. You have to have the mental stamina.”
For many, the fact that Diana and Blair are about to be bundled together onto a departing train says much about the public mood that made each of them icons of what was to be a new Britain in the late 1990s.
“I suppose you could say that Blair and Diana were pretty much the same thing: symbols of youth and optimism in a culture more used to age and complacency. And the other thing they had in common was that they were each very fragile constructs that could not survive much scrutiny,” said Stephen Bayley, whose book on the Labor Party described it as “The Failure of Style Over Substance.”
Diana rose, the Times’ Marrin said in an interview, at a time of “the feminization of every aspect of politics” in Britain.
“One of its features would be victimhood, the sort of sainted victim. Diana was very much seen as a victim, which is very much the language of public services, disability rights, putting disadvantage to the fore and feeling to the fore. Regarding those things as valuable in themselves, as opposed to the old-fashioned attitude of sort of getting on with things,” Marrin said.
“There was a kind of headiness in the air about that time when Blair became prime minister, just before her death. There was a tremendous excitement that there was going to be a new sort of feeling about public life, democratic intimacy, that a princess could be a people’s princess,” she said. “But people are quite wary of all that now.... In a funny way, they’re heavenly twins, Blair and Diana. You can see them as different faces of the same phenomenon.”
In what seems a prescient moment in the film, Elizabeth, portrayed by Helen Mirren, warns Blair that he too might one day face accusatory headlines and a disenchanted public.
“And it will [happen], Mr. Blair,” she says. “Quite suddenly, and with no warning.”
Some British critics have taken “The Queen” to task for failing to portray the mawkish displays of grief with any sense of irony.
The New Statesman called it “especially cowardly to portray the public unquestioningly as a benevolent mass, rather than as a baying mob, advertising its grief with helium balloons that proclaimed, ‘We’ll miss you.’ ”
Criticism aside, the film marks the first critical depiction of a sitting monarch in mainstream British drama, and its portrayal is widely perceived here as spot on; the royal court’s reaction has reportedly been positive, though the queen, by all accounts, has not seen it.
“I think they think it was accurate, and I know it was accurate because they got some help from some very senior courtiers who wanted to correct what they saw as the spin around Diana’s death by Blair and [Prince] Charles,” said Richard Kay, the Daily Mail’s royal correspondent and a confidant of Diana.
“The queen was being criticized for failing to grieve the way the public wanted her to grieve. And I think it took Diana’s death to make her realize just what kind of impact this woman had on the way of the world,” Kay said. “I think the royal family had tended to see Diana as a woman who was manipulated by the media and manipulated the media to such an extent that it was impossible to separate fact from fiction.
“But no one could have manipulated what happened after Diana died,” he said. “It was beyond manipulation.”