Despite the harrumphing tenor of its poster language--"Tradition prepared her. Change will define her."--the new film "The Queen" isn't one of those self-important projects that constitutes a duty rather than a pleasure. It's a buoyant mixture of deft, lightly impudent high comedy and human-scaled drama. Dame Helen Mirren's wonderful in it. Of course. It's unlikely any of us will ever read the following sentence in a review: "Helen Mirren disappoints in the title role."
The week is an eventful one. On Aug. 31, 1997, the former Princess Diana, divorced the previous year from Prince Charles, died in a Paris auto accident involving a paparazzi pursuit. In the crucial days following her death the royal family, never thrilled with the beguiling loose-cannon do-gooder to begin with, followed its tradition-bound script regarding how to behave and what to say. They did nothing. They said nothing. England could not believe it.
As with Idi Amin in Morgan's script for "The Last King of Scotland," currently in theaters and also worth your while, "The Queen" situates its title subject slightly off to one side without lessening our interest. Frears' film is a tale of two leaders. The queen represents one image of England. The new prime minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen, all twinkles and wide eyes), represents another, fresher image, the New Labour Party in action. "The Queen" alternates between scenes of the royals cloistered away in their Scottish hideaway, wondering what the worldwide fuss regarding Diana's death really means, and scenes of Blair and his wife, or Blair and his cabinet. The PM must finesse a tricky week with the public and a trickier one with a woman who puts no value on public expression of sorrow. "Restrained grief and sober, private mourning," the queen says--that's the civil approach.
Has there ever been a less glamorous vision of royalty than Queen Elizabeth II? Unlikely. Is there a better actress alive than Mirren? Doubtful. Hers is a portrait in injured pride, transcended. There's tremendous wit and shading in what Mirren does with the material. In a scene invented out of whole cloth, a mourning Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) rides alongside his mother in the royal Range Rover. The Queen's dogs are in the back. The prince gingerly broaches the topic of the queen's coldness toward Diana, both in life and in death. The queen will have none of it. A few seconds later she's left the car with the dogs--"Walkies!" she announces, like a character out of "Wallace & Gromit"--and is alone with her animals and her thoughts.
There's nothing especially subtle about Morgan's writing in this scene but watch how Mirren handles the shifts in mood and her sudden impatience. Plenty of stage-trained actors fare well in front of a camera but can't quite modulate their work to a lower register, suited to the intimacy of cinema. (Jennings may be one of those actors.) Mirren is a wizard of scale and economy, yet you never sense she's holding back on the fireworks against her will. They explode when they need to, sparingly but with high impact.
Frears is one of the most reliable directors in England, not so much a distinct visual stylist but a masterly director of actors. He's especially valuable when it comes to movies that straddle genres or defy pigeonholing ("My Beautiful Launderette," "The Grifters," "Dangerous Liaisons" and "Dirty Pretty Things" are among his best). "The Queen" is a docudrama and a historical biography and a social comedy. It is not perfect: There's a quite-bad scene wherein Blair upbraids his cynical press secretary (Tim McMullan) for deriding the Queen in her public-relations misery. Also, too much metaphoric weight is placed on the Queen's sighting of an elusive 14-point stag, majestic and isolated.
But the film never lingers long on such moments. It is a film full of sharp details, ranging from the precise, clunky nature of the curtsy executed before the queen by the PM's wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) to the banter percolating in Blair's offices. After his smashingly successful condolence speech the day of Diana's death, Blair hears from his press secretary, the one who contributed the money phrase. "`People's Princess,' mate. You owe me," Alastair Campbell says.
The film goes pretty easy on the royals in the end, and it's a flattering portrait of Blair. But it's not credulous. Frears may swim in the political mainstream with "The Queen" but he does so like a champion channel crosser. And Mirren is marvelous throughout, using those drab eyeglasses and that incredible yanked-back hair the way a Kabuki performer uses makeup--to conceal as well as to reveal the inner workings of the very, very powerful.
Directed by Stephen Frears; screenplay by Peter Morgan; cinematography by Affonso Beato; edited by Lucia Zucchetti; production design by Alan Macdonald; music by Alexandre Desplat; produced by Andy Harries, Christine Langan and Tracey Seaward. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, AMC River East and Evanston CineArts. Running time: 1:43. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language).
The Queen of England - Helen Mirren
Tony Blair - Michael Sheen
Prince Philip - James Cromwell
Cherie Blair - Helen McCrory
Prince Charles - Alex Jennings
Sir Robin Janvrin - Roger Allam
The Queen Mother - Sylvia Syms