It is unlikely that any single person is as omnipresent through one's lifetime as an iconoic and long lived monarch. In Britain no one under the age of 55 has known any other head of state, and even in our disrespectful, celebrity driven culture she still enjoys a personal popularity and visual presence that is almost unique.
Her face smiles benevolently from stamps, stares imperiously from bank notes and is stamped on every coin. Letter boxes, pillars and buildings are decorated with her E II R cipher, and the initials `HM' or `royal' precede almost every national institution. From the RAF to HM Government, from the Queen's Speech to those resting at her majesty's pleasure, Elizabeth is everywhere.
And so the spectacle of a film that attempts to accurately and without sensation reveal the inner workings of her family life and mind is undoubtedly one of the cinematic events to be relished in Britain. And with Helen Mirren taking the lead and making the role so sublimely successful, this film is a definite winner.
It could have been the time, just after lunch in a mid-week showing. It could have been the location, genteel Clapham. But it was more likely to be the film, and its royal subject matter. The Queen is one of the first films I have seen where the pensionable audience was dominant and where octogenarians were a visible minority. And, it seem obvious to say, they were all women. As the strains of `Don't Cry for me, Argentina, blasted through the auditorium, the discrete chatter of the royal watching crowd could be heard.
The pre-movie hype was, like the crowd, discrete. The articles focused on Helen Mirren, and dealt with how the evident lese-majeste would be received in Buckingham Palace. The film itself was received with something of a mystery. I knew it focused on the weeks surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, but beyond that I was in the dark.
But the film did not disappoint. The spectacle of a famously private monarch being brought to life in telling detail was intriguing. The role was played with a dry, waspish sense of humour throughout. The Queen was demonstrated as being rational, honour and duty bound and sensible. Her only failing seems to have been to fail to read the mood of a strangely hysterical public, and by the end this seems to be as much a reason for praise as anything. When an annoyingly `in-touch' Tony Blair tells Her Maj that an appearance might help the people with their grief, the Queen almost splutters back in disbelief "their grief?"
It is this divorce from the people at this point that is the central theme of the film. It is the first time she is hated, criticised and subject to the harsh blast of sustained tabloid fury. And Helen Mirren plays the resulting hurt and confused monarch with aplomb. It is one of her finest dramatic moments.
But it is the joy of watching the private moments that could be so easily believed to be real that makes the film. The Queen is a stickler for protocol. Tony Blair is introduced by the Queen's private secretary as the Prime Minister, and the Queen replies quickly "Prime Minister to be, Robin, to be. I haven't asked him yet". Cherie is well played as the frumpy, republican rebel with a devilish wit that is so easy to believe. Blair is similarly convincing as both the poster child of modernity and then the Queen's defender within government. Alistair Campbell is creepily obsessed with the public image and the spin machine that will later consume him.
Most enjoyable is the Duke of Edinburgh, who in real life can always be relied on to provide a comedy aside. He spends most of the film either away hunting, or spluttering in disbelieving indignation at the latest affront from the government or media. His best line comes in relaying the latest invitation list to the funeral, "a chorus line of soap stars and homosexuals!" And propping up the royal comedy double act is the Queen Mother, as similarly wry as her daughter but yet charmingly dotty with age.
The setting is stunning, with most of the action taking place in the Queen's estate in Balmoral. The hunt scenes present an interesting allegory, with Diana, the namesake of the goddess of the hunt, hunted down to eventual death by the press, and her boys taken on a real hunt to get their minds off it. A giant stag becomes something of a metaphor for the dead princess, beautiful and yet ultimately tragic. In the end, just like the princess, it is in the wrong place at the wrong time and meets a bloody end.
Ultimately this film is far from the caustic attack on the royals I was expecting. The characters are played with attention and sympathy. I can't see that any would have much to complain about in their portrayal. In fact the biggest villains are seen to be the British people, who collectively lose their minds in a display of mass grief that is barely comprehensible. That they forced their stoic, dutiful Queen to grieve in public is one of the most reprehensible episodes in what is ultimately a tragic tale of a family playing out its differences in public and grieving in the only way they know how - in private.