The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents July 2007 Return to Table of Contents
Die Hard 4
DVD Playback
All That Jazz
The Queen
ASC Close-Up
The Queen (2006)

1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)

Dolby Digital 5.1

Miramax Home Entertainment, $29.99 

“Standing by the door, we bow from the neck. I will introduce you. The queen will extend her hand. You go to her, bow again and then shake her hand. It’s ‘ma’am’ as in ‘ham,’ not ‘marm’ as in ‘farm,’ and when you are in the presence, at no point must you show your back.” These are the rules briskly set out for newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) as he prepares to meet Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) for the first time in May 1997. It would prove to be a summer of many firsts. A few months later, while the queen and her husband, Philip (James Cromwell), are on their annual retreat at Balmoral, Princess Diana, the ex-wife of Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), is killed in a car accident in Paris. Over the ensuing weeks, as the world mourns the death of “the people’s princess,” Queen Elizabeth, fully formed by the long-standing traditions of the British monarchy, is strongly encouraged by Blair to adopt a more modern stance on government and royal protocols.

With The Queen, director Stephen Frears has fashioned a remarkable docudrama of subtle power and complexity. A meditation on the conflicted role of the monarchy in Blair’s England, an indictment of the media, and a frank look at the royals’ difficult relationship with Diana, it is also a complicated portrait of a leader steeped in tradition who is forced to reconsider some of her most closely held beliefs.

Frears felt strongly that in addition to using some actual news footage of the events in 1997, the film should use different visual textures for Blair and the queen’s separate worlds; he wanted a gritty, provincial look for Blair’s sequences and a smooth elegance for the queen’s. Wisely, Frears tapped cinematographer Affonso Beato, ASC, ABC (Live Flesh, The Big Easy, All About My Mother) to bring his scheme to life. A veteran of many international projects of varied styles, Beato, working closely with production designer Alan MacDonald, realized the films’ distinct worlds, made room for the video news footage, and fused it all into one cohesive vision. For Blair’s sequences, he shot Super 16mm with spare or stark lighting and few contrasting primary colors; when transferred to 35mm, this yielded evident grain and sharp tone. By contrast, he shot the queen’s world in 35mm, incorporating a warmer lighting scheme and deeper, more solid colors.

This recently released DVD of The Queen is a solid translation of the theatrical presentation. The image is letterboxed at 1.85:1 with a crisp, accurate, handsome transfer that is enhanced for widescreen viewing. The visual shifts between the story’s two worlds are well reproduced here, with the subtle juxtaposition’s thematic impact intact. The audio track, like the queen herself, is pronounced but never showy. The Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation really comes to life when Alexandre Desplat’s mournful, low-key score appears.

The DVD’s supplements offer insight into the difficulty of reconstructing recent history. An excellent 20-minute featurette, “The Making of The Queen,” includes interviews with Frears, screenwriter Peter Morgan and actors Mirren, Sheen, Cromwell, and Sylvia Syms (who plays Elizabeth, the Queen Mother). Also featured are two audio commentaries, one by British historian Robert Lacey, who explains the changing role of the royal family over the years, and the other by Frears and Morgan, who occasionally share notes of interest when they’re not silently absorbed in watching their film.

Although The Queen is likely to be remembered mostly for Mirren’s extraordinary performance, which brought her an Academy Award and numerous other honors, what really distinguishes the film is how simple it appears to be at first, and how gracefully it reveals its complexities. Filled with rich detail and uniformly excellent performances, The Queen is an intimate examination of a leader whose public face is quite opaque.

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