London calling: Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren)
How weird is it to have a queen? An actual Royal Highness, who speaks of herself as "we" and never lifts a finger, except her little one when she eats a petit four. No matter how poor an Englishman is, no matter how rotten his teeth, he still loves his monarch.
And yet, it's even stranger to be one. Stephen Frears' The Queen -- a story of Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), Tony Blair and the death of Princess Diana -- is the director's best work in 20 years (since My Beautiful Launderette) and an act of peerless artistic patriotism: To say it humanizes the Queen is as banal as saying she's inhuman to begin with. No one is. It's just that in the case of some people -- strangers, the famous, your brother or sister -- we don't always understand what makes them so.
The Queen is straightforward, intelligent and immediate, one of those rare dramas that invites you to wonder how they know this stuff. It's tense and absorbing, and never sensational or cruel. Is it true? I don't know and I don't care: It feels true, and it makes you think and wonder. That's all we can really ask of art.
Frears' film, finely written by Peter Morgan, begins with the election of Blair (Michael Sheen), bug-eyed and boyish, to the job of prime minister in May 1997. The archaic demands of Britain's monarchy begin for him the next morning, when he has an audience with the Queen, who must ceremonially offer him the job. On his knees, he accepts, and the Queen feels good for having taken part once again in the uselessness that tradition compels.
The honeymoon ends for the new PM when, four months later, Diana dies in a Paris tunnel. For Blair and the rest of the nation, the need to mourn goes without saying. But to the Queen, it's a private matter. That's what she was taught, and that what she makes it, isolating herself at a country estate, and angering her people with what they perceive as her inexplicable coldness.
What grows from this historic moment is a film that's at once a political procedural and a character study. In fact, for the royals, character is procedure. Prince Philip (an exceptional James Cromwell), whose contribution to British history took him about seven minutes (if that), is especially useless, and he knows it: He's a nasty, nasty man. It's fascinating to watch these historic figures become more and more real with each mixed motive and flash of self-awareness. By the time it's over you begin to understand, even if you can't approve.
The Queen wants to do the right thing. She just doesn't do it. She's being dignified, which she believes her people want her to be. When she realizes that they need more of her, she concludes, "There's been a change, some shift in values." And there has been, something that Blair, astute in his youth (i.e., pre-Bush), understood.
The acting in The Queen is full-bodied and handsomely measured, except for Mirren, whose performance is too sublime for this world. No one else could play the Queen -- no one else should play her. When Elizabeth drives her motor car, gets stuck in the river, and looks beneath it to see what's wrong, she explodes the notion of monarch and becomes suddenly whole. Watching Mirren absorb herself in this role is almost other-worldly, like a glimpse into that mirror, mirror on the wall.
Starts Fri., Oct. 27