The Queen, the sublime comedy of (grand) manners directed by Stephen Frears, centers on the face of Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II—a face that barely bestirs itself. That doesn’t mean she’s inexpressive. Shortly after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, as public dismay builds at the lack of a statement from Buckingham Palace, Mirren’s queen watches Diana sniffle through an old TV interview over her treatment at the hands of the unfeeling royals. The queen neither snorts nor sighs: She simply stares at her late daughter-in-law on the screen, her eyes widening ever so slightly. Yet it’s uncanny how many emotions bleed through Mirren’s regal mask: distaste, horror, pity, regret, bewilderment, and perhaps something else—envy. Like her Elizabethan namesake (whom Mirren also impersonated recently, on HBO), Elizabeth II considers it her duty to rise above her private feelings, to function as a symbol for her people. That this Diana person, a member of the royal family, could have allowed herself to be so open, so histrionic, so overflowingly human: To the queen, it is a mystery with no bottom.
What a challenge Frears and the screenwriter Peter Morgan have set for themselves: to dramatize the conflict between a pretty, vulnerable young woman and a frumpy, emotionally stunted monarch—and to turn our normal sympathies topsy-turvy, so that the former is absent while the latter is our damsel in distress. How can they give this stubborn, blinkered, coddled woman, who can’t even grieve like a human being, an ounce of dramatic stature?
The obvious way is by casting Dame Helen, who is peerless when it comes to playing characters trapped in roles to which society has assigned them. In a sort of overture, Elizabeth poses for a portrait while keeping tabs on the election that will sweep Tony Blair into office—Blair the youthful, studiously informal Labour upstart whose wife is a renowned anti-monarchist. Confiding sadly to the artist that she wishes she could just once be joyfully partisan, this plain woman turns toward the camera, raises her eyebrows, and assumes the queenliest of miens as the title—The Queen—fades in majestically. It’s the movie’s only wink at the audience, but it’s hilarious, and it’s enough: It primes you to scrutinize Mirren’s face for signs of tension between the woman and the sovereign. It also primes you to marvel at the will it takes to keep up appearances when virtually everyone on earth thinks you’re both scarily heartless and laughably out of touch.
We all did, of course: We might have been divided on the subject of Diana’s beatitude, but there was no disagreement about the royals’ cluelessness. Much of The Queen has the quality of a disaster film in which idiots ignore the volcano up the road spewing ever-larger gobs of lava. Elizabeth insists that the mourning will be quiet, with dignity, that there will be no public funeral for an ex-royal, that this is a private matter for her family. You say there will be an international outpouring of grief, on an undreamed-of scale? An absurd notion. You say the queen should address the nation, to help her people cope with the loss? The subjects would desire no such thing. After fairly begging Elizabeth to reckon with reality— as well as with the excoriating headlines and widespread calls for an end to the monarchy—Blair (Michael Sheen) gazes heavenward and cries, “Will someone please save these people from themselves?”
If The Queen is the story of Elizabeth and Diana’s disastrous antipathy, it’s also the tale of Liz and Tony’s fortunate symbiosis. Showing the kind of deference to authority that would one day lead him down the garden path with an even more shortsighted (and considerably stupider) world leader, the prime minister behaves with a chivalry that not even he seems fully to comprehend. Sheen is slighter and more chipmunk-like than his real-life model, but it’s hard to imagine a more generous portrait—or a more deliciously impudent turn by Helen McCrory as his wife, Cherie. You love Cherie when she makes an ironic show of backing out of the queen’s drawing room (one must never turn one’s back on Her Majesty), and you love Elizabeth for registering the affront while keeping her smile firmly in place.
It’s hard not to love everyone in this movie except the charmless Prince Philip (James Cromwell), whose exclamations are unfailingly snobbish and dull. Even Charles (Alex Jennings) is a figure more to be pitied than censured. He’s always piping up about changing times and the need to be flexible—and you see him through his mother’s eyes, not so much flexible as boneless. I’ve rarely seen body language more amusing than Jennings’s when he directs his chief of staff to make overtures to Blair behind his mother’s back (“The prince feels that you and he are modern men”); he leans away from the phone as if afraid it will turn into Mummy and whack off his head.