In a year at the movies that's been distinctly unsatisfying, it's a pleasure to be in the hands of two seasoned vets working at the top of their game. The Queen provides just such an opportunity, with Helen Mirren front-and-center as Queen Elizabeth II, and director Stephen Frears back in his element (after the unfortunate detour of last fall's Mrs. Henderson Presents).
Frears' gutsy film about power politics takes us behind the closed doors of power during the emotional and political crisis of Princess Diana's accidental death in 1997. Newly appointed prime minister Tony Blair, effectively embodied by Michael Sheen, already faces an uphill battle dealing with the aloof monarch; fresh hell comes to Blair when he must politicly arbitrate the public relations challenge of how to recognize estranged royal Diana. As the public turns against its Queen, Blair marvels at the Royals' inability to adapt: "Will someone please save these people from themselves?"
Screenwriter Peter Morgan delicately balances the inherent drama of the tragic circumstances with the comedy of manners that is the Royal Family's dysfunction, and Britain's ambivalent attitudes to the same. Somewhere in between comedy and drama are the maneuverings of two wary branches of government. The Queen—the ne plus ultra of establishment figures—fights a war of passive agression with "great modernizer" Blair; her frosty insistence on traditional propriety and familial privacy clashes with Blair's pulse-of-the-people instinct that the nation needs a conduit for its mourning.
Both figures want the loving loyalty of the people and each sees the value of helping the other, but mutual trust develops slowly. Both also come across as heroic in their struggle to understand their roles, despite their differences. Blair's talk of the "people's princess" reflects his "modernization" stance but also his humility relative to the Royals; his middle-class, pre-Downing Street apartment contrasts strikingly to the royal, palatial digs (most of the acton takes place at country retreat Balmoral Castle).
Mirren is a marvel as the queen, restrained and yet radiant in every thought and feeling beneath a placid surface. Mirren shifts her mask subtly, with pursed lips or tightened jaw and, in rare unguarded moments of private repose, sadness dropping slow over her fatigued features. Meanwhile, Sheen's Blair comes off as rather wistfully, generously protective of his Queen, a point shaded with intimations of Blair's own mother issues.
The film derives from considerable research but must imagine much of the drama that unfolded behind closed doors. Tastefully and convincingly, the film acknowledges the Queen's foibles but also her depth of character and the career casualty of her forgotten humanity ("I prefer to keep my feelings to myself," she demurs. "Duty first, myself second"). Fiercely independent at work and "play," she spends time with her corgis and drives herself about the estate in her Land Rover, reminding a solicitous observer that she was a mechanic during the war. Such observations lend even the invented scenes an impressive verisimilitude.
Certainly, The Queen does not go without questioning the Royal Family (excepting "the boys," who are viewed only at a healthy distance). Prince Philip (James Cromwell) comes across as a irredeemably pompous twit, and Charles (Alex Jennings) acts cowed and fearfully selfish ("Why do they hate us so much?" he whines). But Morgan and Frears take us with the Queen as she awakens to "some shift of values" in her subjects.
Sensing her own dimming influence, she becomes unreasonably empathetic to the beautiful, noble stag Philip and the boys are hunting to kill time. The metaphor is a bit blunt, but a forgivable indulgence of an otherwise brisk narrative style. "That's the way we do things in this country," says the Queen. "Quietly and with dignity." It's an approach that Frears has happily rediscovered.