We see footage of Tony Blair becoming prime minister in the U.K. as the queen, Elizabeth II, watches news footage. A man who is painting her portrait tells the queen that he did not vote for Tony Blair, and she smiles at him, noting that he is not a "modernizer." She expresses her envy for his right to vote and know "the sheer joy of being partial."
May 2, 1997. A bagpiper plays outside Buckingham Palace as the queen awakens and a servant opens the curtains. The queen waits to meet Blair and discusses the prime minister to-be with Robin Janvrin. They discuss the fact that Blair was raised in a Conservative, establishment family, but wants to initiate huge reforms to the constitution and is married to a woman with antimonarchist sympathies.
Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, visit the queen. A servant narrates to the Blairs what the protocols are for meeting with the queen, and the rules are extensive. Tony goes in to meet the queen, and she is friendly and asks him about his three children. When they sit, the queen asks Tony if they have shown him how to start a nuclear war yet, letting him know that he is her 10th prime minister as queen. Her first was Winston Churchill. At the end of their meeting, he kneels, and the queen invites him to become the prime minister. Cherie enters and does a very slight curtsy, which Robin mentioned as a tactic of dissent he noted in the queen's earlier meeting with Cherie.
They discuss their summer plans. The Blairs are going to France, while the queen goes to Scotland. Suddenly, Robin interrupts to let the queen know that there's been some breaking news that she must respond to, and she dismisses the Blairs. On their way out, Cherie comments on how abrupt the end was and the fact that "Whatever it is, it'll be something to do with Diana."
We see a montage of news footage about various controversies surrounding Princess Diana, including her affair with Dodi Fayed. The scene shifts to Paris, August 30, 1997. We see newscasters outside a building, as Diana and Dodi Fayed get into a car. The car gets into an accident and Diana endures horrible injuries.
Robin is awakened in the middle of the night with the news of the accident and goes to the queen to tell her. The queen is awakened in the middle of the night and receives the news of Diana's accident. Tony Blair is also awakened with the news. The royals watch the television, as Charles comes in to see the news. He tells his parents he's flying in a private jet to Paris, and Elizabeth worries that that is "precisely the sort of extravagance they always attack us for."
Diana dies from her injuries. Tony prepares to make a statement, and the queen spies on Charles as he tells William and Harry the news. He wants to bring back Diana's body in a private plane, and Elizabeth agrees.
The queen goes to her room and writes in her diary. Her husband, Prince Philip, comes in and tells her that the queen's sister called from Tuscany, and complained that Diana's death was an annoyance.
The film begins with the momentous election of Tony Blair as prime minister of England. He is known as a "modernizer": someone who is interested in reform, which naturally has certain incompatibilities with the royal family, one of the most traditional institutions in the country. The film begins with Queen Elizabeth speaking to a royal portrait artist who did not vote for Blair and suggesting, "We're in danger of losing too much that is good about this country as it is." From the start, a slight conflict is established between old, established orders and ideas of the future.
The friction between Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair is exemplified in their very first meeting. As Blair and his wife Cherie are guided through the palace, they roll their eyes at one another privately about all of the rules they must follow. Then, in Blair's meeting with Elizabeth, the queen pointedly reminds him that she has been queen for 10 prime ministers. He then accidentally speaks at the moment when the queen ought to be speaking in the ritual to officialize his status as prime minister. These little tensions and blunders make clear that the two leaders are rather incompatible.
The tension between Tony Blair and the queen is dwarfed by the sudden death of Princess Diana, a controversial royal figure and the ex-wife of Prince Charles. Her death causes a stir throughout England, not only because it is so tragic, but because of Diana's strained relationship with the royal family. Elizabeth had a difficult relationship with Diana at the time of Diana's death. While Elizabeth represents decorum, discretion, and royal conservatism, Diana represents a wayward rebellion, glamor, and celebrity that Elizabeth frowns upon. The conflict of the film then becomes, how will the queen respond tactfully to the death of a woman with whom she is known to have a tense relationship.
The film gives a private perspective to highly public, historical events. While many people who were alive in 1997 remember the occasion of Princess Diana's death, director Stephen Frears gives the viewer a window into what happened behind closed doors among people who were in power. While the depiction is fictitious, it portrays the emotional weight of the tragedy, the complexities of the public relations involved, and the disruption it caused at the time.
The rhythm of the film is brisk and matter-of-fact. Events happen quickly and the script does not waste time with small details. Frears's film, with a screenplay with Peter Morgan, is to-the-point, while also feeling full. The characters' attitudes and personalities are conveyed with nuance and detail, thanks in part to the script and in part to the performances by the actors. A brief, two-minute scene, or even a brief facial expression, can subtly express the magnitude of the events in the narrative.