Mirren is majesty, indeed, in 'The Queen'

It has been reported that the producer of "The Queen" set about casting his lead by asking: Who better to play the Queen of England than the queen of English actresses? I realize there is some competition for this honorific but, as Queen Elizabeth, Helen Mirren gives the mostly subtly expressive performance based on a living historical figure that I've ever seen.

It's so subtle that, at first, I was not exactly sure what it was I was watching. Is it merely letter-perfect impersonation, or perhaps a deadpan send up of the monarchy? The audience I saw the film with was clearly revved up for satire, and when Mirren, with her lemony smile and marcelled hair, shows up looking queenier than the queen, there were titters. Surely director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan are too smart to pass up such a fat target for ridicule? This must be a comedy. But anyone familiar with their work, not to mention Mirren's, would know that the cheap shot is not part of their arsenal. Not that the royal family is spared its share of barbs; it's just that ultimately this is a movie about the bearing and bewilderment of a human being, not a figurehead.

The film, which includes a wealth of actual news clips and is based on interviews with everyone from cabinet ministers to stable hands, focuses on the week in August 1997 following Princess Diana's death in a car crash in Paris. In its immediate aftermath, the queen, sequestered with the royal family in Scotland's Balmoral Castle, fails to comprehend the people's grief for the "People's Princess." She deems the event a "private matter" and assumes everything will blow over.

Recently elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who represents the brave new world of informal protocol and media manipulation, attempts throughout the week to ease the queen into the modern era by having her publicly acknowledge the death to an outraged citizenry grown weary of the monarchy.

On its simplest level, "The Queen" is a nuts-and-bolts docudrama about how a thorny political problem is solved. Blair's machinations, which he believes will certify his newfound popularity, eventually become more favorable to the crown. His famously antimonarchist wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory), sums up the feelings of many when she calls the royals, who also include the Queen Mum (Sylvia Syms), Prince Philip (James Cromwell), and Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), "freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters."

But Blair begins to see, as we do, how riven Queen Elizabeth is by a turn of events she was wholly ill-equipped to deal with. Even if her relations with the divorced Diana had been less frosty, she might still have resisted the call to take the spotlight and express her remorse.

It is very rare for a historical drama, especially one made by artists who are not remotely Tory, to express such wide-ranging emotional sympathy for the ruling class. Frears and Morgan, who also collaborated on the 2003 British TV film "The Deal" that starred Sheen as Blair, have no illusions about the dangerous inanities of imperial pomp, but they possess a feeling for the beauty of tradition.

When the queen says to Blair near the end that she was raised to honor duty first and self second, she is speaking in her truest voice. Frears opens the film with a quote from Shakespeare's Henry IV: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." At first, I questioned the inflation of this. But by the end, the queen's story does indeed have its Shakespearean dimensions. It expresses the passage into oblivion of a once-revered icon, the mother of all England.

None of this would hold water were it not for Mirren's great performance. Not once does she wink at us or give us any indication that she stands apart from the woman she is playing. The queen's indomitability, which at first seems so comically arch, falls away and, especially in her private moments, we see the real woman emerge. She seems happiest plodding alone about the Scottish moors because she has no face to present to the world – or to herself. Her self control is relinquished, if only momentarily, but it is enough to allow us a peek into who she might have been had she not been royalty from birth.

When the Diana tumult finally recedes, the queen and Blair meet at Balmoral and, speaking of the public's disdain for her, she tells him, "one day, suddenly and without warning, the same thing will happen to you." She seems cheery, not because she is getting back at Blair but because she has survived an ordeal and grown wiser for it. Grade: A

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

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