On a golden alpine summer evening in 1992, I unexpectedly found myself in conversation with Prince Nikolaus von und zu Liechtenstein, younger brother of that micro–principality’s ruler, Prince Hans Adam II. Prince Nikolaus, a very serious Catholic and a patron of the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein, held what he laughingly described as “the country’s two most important offices,” namely, ambassador to Switzerland and, a distant second, ambassador to the United Nations. Somehow, the course of the conversation turned to the latest troubles of the Prince and Princess of Wales — at which point Prince Nikolaus, who knew them both, said something quite arresting: “I told Charles that it was a bad idea to marry her — that it wouldn’t work because she wasn’t born to the blood.”
Since the prince was far too intelligent to imagine anything akin to a genetic predisposition to rule, I asked him what he meant by the fact that the former Lady Diana Spencer hadn’t been “born to the blood.” He explained that royalty in the modern world was a very strange business, especially because it involved a lifetime of duty, and duty performed under intense scrutiny by an often unscrupulous press. Unless you had been raised from childhood to do that — to accept the duty, including its many boring bits, and to weather the scrutiny — you just weren’t going to be able to hack it.
I had several occasions to ponder the prince’s remarks in the five years between our conversation and Diana’s demise — as I also did recently, while watching the best movie I’ve seen in years: “The Queen,” a humane, funny, and ultimately wise docu-drama, set during and immediately after Diana’s death in a 1997 Parisian automobile accident. If Helen Mirren doesn’t win the Oscar for her brilliantly understated portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, there is no justice in the world; kudos are due, too, to Michael Sheen for his spot-on portrayal of prime minister Tony Blair and to Helen McCrory for her rendering of a slightly daffy Cherie Blair. “The Queen” is more than a great entertainment, however. It’s a contemporary parable about the superiority of duty to ambition, and of real human emotions to media-savvy spin.
The dramatic fulcrum of the film is the effort by then-newly-confected prime minister Blair to convince the Queen that she must follow the modern media conventions and join, if in a dignified way, in what amounted to a national nervous breakdown. The Queen, Blair suggests, must be seen to feel her people’s pain. Elizabeth II has a different view: her first responsibility, she believes, is to her young grandsons, Princes William and Harry, who are staying with her at Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands. Trained to a royal stoicism during the Second World War, Her Britannic Majesty doesn’t propose to turn herself, or her grandchildren, into the emotional playthings of a nation coming unhinged.
As the pressure from what the late J.P. McFadden used to call the “tablouds” intensifies, however, the Queen begins to understand that the monarchy itself may be at stake, and that the vow she had taken on the day of her coronation may, now, require her to do things she never imagined herself doing: like publicly confessing grief in a televised address to the nation — a necessary, if distasteful, concession to the out-of-control circumstances of the therapeutic society gone bonkers.
Yet if the Queen changes, Tony Blair changes more. This self-conscious modernizer, whose wife would cheerfully scrap the monarchy, comes to understand that there is far more to successful public service than the spin-machine he has installed at Number 10 Downing Street. There is duty, exemplified by the Queen, who is prepared to put up with ridicule, even hatred, for what she believes to be right — for what she believes she ought to be and do. If the Queen eventually must bend, however slightly, to the mob, precisely in order to do her duty, then the prime minister must grow up — fast — in order to be the success he so desperately wants to be.
Enjoy the film. But ponder the lesson, too.