Recently released on DVD, The Queen offers another opportunity to view a near perfect film punctuated by two fantastic performances, Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth and Michael Sheen as the newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair. As it tells the story of the royal family’s response to Princess Diana’s death in 1997, The Queen raises questions of tradition, political protocol, humility, and modernization that find striking application to contemporary events ranging from politics to religious denominational affairs.
Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things) intercuts the narrative with archival footage surrounding Princess Diana’s death on the heels of Blair’s landslide election as Prime Minister. The ensuing story focuses on the royals’ conservative response to Diana’s death opposed to Blair’s modern approach, both of which mirror their respective political traditions. Though the opposition of tradition to modernity might be a bit heavy-handed, the film’s pacing and wonderful acting distracts from this potential threat.
I recently heard a minister say that yesterday’s answers are not capable of solving tomorrow’s problems. However, he was quick to reassure that our memories of yetserday and its answers can inform the responses we make tomorrow. Here lies the heart of The Queen. Clearly, Queen Elizabeth’s rigid adherence to traditional protocol offends the public’s sensibilities. Blair’s more progressive reactions satisfy the public and help process their grief. Yet Blair, in all his efforts at modernization, is clearly mindful of the past, of the tradition that Queen Elizabeth represents. One of the most interesting aspects of The Queen was Blair’s response to both the queen and to his colleagues (his wife included). Rather than mounting a revolution against a monarch with which he differed, he stood by his convictions while respecting the tradition that the queen had so long upheld. As such, in the film, neither Blair nor Queen Elizabeth meet the same fate as the 14-point stag that an investment banker from London kills.
The Queen‘s portrayal of a not-too-distant past finds continued contemporary parallels. Whether it be a former princess’ death or the on-going problems of poverty, adequate healthcare, climate change, immigration, etc., government responses must be able to evolve as the challenges do. Moreover, problems aren’t the only factors that require new vision: “neutral” changes in communication, science, transportation, etc. demand changing responses. Thus, how does the church, a bastion of tradition, respond to the march of modernization or changing technologies and their effects on communication and the nature of community? Does it stick to “the way things have always been done,” or does it find new ways of being?
The Queen, perhaps inadvertently, also shows just how quickly all these changes can occur. Juxtaposed to the current political climate in the UK, Queen Elizabeth’s cinematic warning to an optimistic Blair sadly reveals just how far he has fallen out of favor with those who once praised him. Moreover, we might also see it as a warning to religious denominations struggling to carve out both their identity and their ministries, especially those who cling so tightly to tradition at the expense of effective responses to a rapidly changing world.