All hail Helen Mirren, who delivers a master class in acting in The Queen. Having just won an Emmy for playing Elizabeth I, who ruled England from 1558 to 1603, Mirren is in line for a curtsy from Oscar for digging deep into the role of Elizabeth II, the queen since 1952. If you’re expecting a soggy biopic about a monarch known for her rigid formality, snap out of it. The Queen is one of the best and liveliest movies of the year—funny and touching in ways you can’t predict. Set mostly during the week after the August 1997 death of Princess Diana, whose rebellious behavior before and after her divorce from Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) gave the royal family palpitations, the film goes behind closed doors at Buckingham Palace. The script, by Peter Morgan, who used “inside sources,” is a model of elegance and bracing wit. The gifted Stephen Frears directs with an eye for telling detail and an ear for the emotions roiling under polite royal speech. Frears and Morgan teamed on The Deal, a 2003 British TV movie about Prime Minister Tony Blair. Michael Sheen played the role then and does so here, finding the steel behind the PM’s killer charm. It’s a sensational performance, alert and nuanced.
Sheen had to be that good to take on Mirren. After the PM’s election, the queen brings him down a peg by reminding him that he is her tenth PM, Winston Churchill being the first. The tables turn when Blair mourns Diana on TV as “the people’s princess.” His speechwriter (Mark Bazeley) coined the phrase, but Blair rides it to popular glory while the queen freezes out her subjects by taking refuge at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. The queen mother (Sylvia Syms) is appalled at the publicity. Ditto Prince Philip, a dotty nut job as played by James Cromwell, who predicts a funeral attended by “soap stars and homosexuals.” He gasps that “Elton John will be singing at Westminster.” And so he does.
Frears uses footage of the funeral and the real Diana to comment on the action. But the real triumph of the film is the dignity it finally allows the queen. Bred to serve since girlhood, she has dedicated herself to a life Diana rejected. And yet as the queen walks past the mountain of flowers the people have left at the palace and reads the notes of love to Diana—and the insults to Her Majesty—Mirren lets us see the confusion and hurt in Elizabeth’s eyes. It’s Blair who has forced her back to London to mourn Diana publicly, much against her private nature. In a tart reference to Blair’s current career reversals, the script has the queen tell him that “one day, quite suddenly, the same thing will happen to you.” Palace politics keep the film zipping along, but the crowning achievement is Mirren’s. With subtle humor and innate class, she shows us a side of the queen long hidden from the world: her humanity.