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Stephen Frears Directs The Queen

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In The Queen, director Stephen Frears’ spot-on new cinematic depiction of English monarch Elizabeth II’s conflicted response to the sudden shocking death of Princess Diana in August 1987, contrasting visual looks were combined to add texture and tension to the storytelling.The scenes with the Queen—adroitly played by Helen Mirren, who for much of the film is secluded with the rest of the out-of-touch Royal Family at their Balmoral Castle hideaway—were filmed in 35mm by director of photography Affonso Beato.The use of 35mm “added to the weight and richness of those sections,” said Frears, who was in Los Angeles recently to promote the film prior to its local opening. “She is, after all the Queen; and in 35mm the shots are more composed, and she has more grandeur, even if she’s just out in her wellingtons walking with her dogs on the palace grounds.”Extreme close-ups of Mirren’s face served to capture her subtle portrayal. “We tried to photograph her from the inside,” said Frears, “to convey that the Queen is a reticent and restrained woman, who makes a virtue of not saying what she’s thinking.”Beato, meanwhile, was asked by Frears to employ Super 16 film to capture Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), then the new Prime Minister, in his London surroundings both at 10 Downing Street and at home. “That was done to make those scenes more energized and informal—they’re just politicians, people like you and me,” said the English director, whose previous films include Mrs. Henderson Presents, Dirty Pretty Things, The Grifters and My Beautiful Laundrette.The third main character in The Queen is Princess Diana. Though dead, she appears prominently and often. That’s done by the clever use of original documentary footage that’s replayed, over the television, in the nonstop broadcasts that followed the fatal Paris auto accident that took her life.“Diana is so vivacious and intoxicating in the documentary footage that she grows as a person in the film,” said Frears. “One of the interesting conflicts in the story is that the Queen is played by an actress and Princess Di plays herself—it may seem daft but I think it works.” (There is one very short scene where an actress plays the princess.)Instead of trying to technically improve the documentary footage, “I was almost trying to make it worse,” he said. “I was degrading it. I like the seams to show. I wouldn’t want people to imagine that this was the real thing.”In the film, a perplexed Queen Elizabeth is shown frequently viewing the developments on the tube, which as the days go by focus on the public turning against her because she has made no gesture in tribute to the deceased princess. “Television itself—the media coverage—was such a large part of the story,” observed Frears. “We constantly show the Queen watching the telly. I’m sure that’s exactly how she got most of her information at the time—everybody else did.”In several scenes, documentary and filmed footage link seamlessly. “That can be chalked up to the very good editing of Lucia Zucchetti,” said the director. She had worked with Frears on two other projects, including his last film, Mrs. Henderson Presents.“We took a long time editing the film,” he added. “I tried to work out something that’s a bit hard to articulate, but, basically it was to be really fair, which I’m not very good at. But if I let my prejudices take over, the film would have collapsed.” He attributed the universally positive reviews the film has received in England to the sense of fairness. “A lot of people were nervous about seeing it because they thought we’d be attacking the Queen. Actually, what the film is doing is attacking the Royal Family and praising the Queen.”Because getting access to Balmoral was out of the question, several substitute castles in different parts of Scotland served as stand-ins. “That made it hard and expensive and tiring, because they were so far apart, and we had to constantly trek between them,” said the director.The magnificent outdoor natural settings were filmed at an estate adjacent to Balmoral. “That’s as close as we got,” said Frears. Production designer Alan MacDonald had considerable freedom in depicting the Royal Family’s private premises, including the Queen’s bedroom, because they hadn’t been previously photographed.One of the most touching scenes in the film is when the Queen goes out on the castle grounds and sees a magnificent stag which she seems to relate to better than she does to human beings. “It was done digitally,” Frears explained. “We shot the stag, meaning we filmed it, at one of the farms where they breed them. And then we used visual effects to put him in the film. It would have been impossible to go with a real one—they don’t do what they’re told.”Daniel Phillips, who was the key charge of both makeup and hair, gets credit for how uncannily the two leads are made to resemble the real Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair. “Daniel came out of those BBC historical series, and they produce the best in the world at their jobs,” he said. ”Of course they have to look after the actors, but first and foremost they’re devoted to using their craft to tell a story.”Following the launch of The Queen, Frears said he has no new projects on tap. He said he was heading back to London for a battery recharge: “I’m going home, home, home.”

Written by Jack Egan

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