In the hands of another director, The Queen could be an exercise in claustrophobia, like a dinner party with horrible food and worse people. But Frears doesn’t score easy laughs at his characters’ expense. Having made up his mind that he reveres this queen (and this actress), he invests her surroundings with genuine elegance rather than empty ostentation. For all the senseless protocol, Elizabeth behaves toward her army of employees with more grace than the average B-list Hollywood celebrity. And she doesn’t cut a ludicrous figure amid the mighty crags and rolling hills of her family’s 50,000-acre Scottish estate; in that landscape, she knows her place. Given the movie’s cheekiness, Morgan and Frears take a chance by hitting a note of awe— the appearance of a magnificent stag that gazes into her eyes as she struggles with her existential dilemma.
There’s something perverse—delightfully perverse—about a film in which the suspense is in whether a woman can bring herself to make a grudging statement of grief, and when she acquiesces, it’s not exactly a stand-up-and-cheer kind of climax. But it’s a momentous one, because it marks, for Queen Elizabeth II, the passing of a more dignified, more orderly world. It’s akin to Chekhov’s idle rich having to sell off their cherry orchard to commoners, except the story has been updated: The catastrophe is a public-relations one, and what Elizabeth has to sell is her image. She has it coming, though: She was frightful to poor, unhinged Diana, the queen of modernity, of celebrity culture. The Queen is the most reverent irreverent comedy imaginable. Or maybe it’s the most irreverent reverent comedy. Either way, it’s a small masterpiece.
The Queen’s Peter Morgan also wrote the screenplay (with Jeremy Brock) of The Last King of Scotland, the fictional story of a young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) who travels to Uganda to escape an overbearing patriarch and ends up in the hearty embrace of a patriarch who’s even more overbearing … Idi Amin! The movie is one of those morality plays about the dangers of letting yourself be seduced by powerful people, especially when they’re genocidal maniacs, and you can guess where it’s heading when the doctor and Idi’s wife No. 3 (Kerry Washington) begin trading longing looks. But if the story is familiar, the treatment isn’t: The film is phenomenally well directed by Kevin Macdonald and edited by Justine Wright to bring out every bit of scary volatility in the most casual interactions. The charismatic McAvoy finds an ever-shifting blend of opportunism and decency; Simon McBurney is a reptilian marvel as Idi’s English minder; and Gillian Anderson is amazingly vivid as a beaten-down do-gooder. Dwarfing all is Forest Whitaker, who finally gets to seize the space and show us how he can rage. His Amin is the most bloodcurdling kind of actor: a paranoiac with one eye on his audience and the power to give them the hook.