The British royal family has weathered abdications, wars, and scandal. But one of the nastiest hits to them in the twentieth century came when Princess Di was killed.
And so "The Queen" tries to get inside the perfectly-permed head of the British Queen Elizabeth II, nearly ten years ago. Helen Mirren gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the title character, as she attempts to weather public and personal difficulties. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
The movie opens with the election of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who comes to visit the queen (Mirren), despite being rather nervous about his new job. The country has been off balance ever since Di died in a car crash a few weeks ago, and her passing leaves the royals with mixed feelings. The queen decrees that since Diana divorced Prince Charles, she was no longer a royal, and her arrangements are to be left to her family.
What she doesn't realize is that the people ADORED Diana, and continue to adore her in the weeks that follow. Then the press joins in, berating the royal family for coldly ignoring the ex-princess, and heralding the Labour Party Blair. Her husband and mother think that she should continue doing nothing -- but the Queen has learned that sometimes the people need to be appeased.
"The Queen" unfolds slowly like an old book, and Stephen Frears gives it the dignified gloss that usually belongs to older movies. Scenes that could have been maudlin or cliche are underplayed, which makes them more powerful. One example is of the queen peering in as Charles tells his young sons that their mother has died.
Fortunately, as in real life, there's also comedy as well as confusion and tragedy; Peter Morgan injects some humor when a nervy Blair meets the Queen for the first time. Morgan also spins u[ the kind of dialogue we can imagine the droll Elizabeth or prickly Prince Philip saying ("Sleeping in the streets and pulling out their hair for someone they never knew. And they think WE'RE mad!").
Mirren doesn't normally look much like Elizabeth II. She's younger, taller, and prettier. But with some padding and makeup, she manages to BECOME Elizabeth II. She's dignified, haughty, yet Mirren manages to bring across that she's bewildered and vulnerable as well. In short, she makes her version of Elizabeth II a person.
She's also backed by magnificent performances by Sheen and James Cromwell. Cromwell is excellent as the crotchety, stubborn Prince Philip, who thinks the best way to deal with grief is to go hunting. And Sheen is very good as the Prime Minister who is just starting his work, and who gains a new perspective on the royals.
"The Queen" is a unique, quietly compelling film, as it explores what might have happened within the royal family -- and the person that Queen Elizabeth might be, underneath the royal mask.