If you've ever been to an Anglican funeral service you know that there's no room for tears, no overt emotional release of the kind you'd find at some less dignified ceremony. Mourners keep their feelings to themselves and make sure they're well hidden. I remind you of this because that's the premise on which screenwriter Peter Morgan ("The Last King of Scotland") and director Stephen Frears ("My Beautiful Laundrette," "The Grifters," "High Fidelity" and "Dirty Pretty Things," among others) have set their film "The Queen."
It's the story of the week following Princess Diana's death in Paris, on August 31, 1997, when 'the people's princess,' as the press called her, became the iconic representation of a fairy-tale royal house that loved and cared for the people, set against the Anglican restraint of Queen Elizabeth II and the rest of the family. It was also the time when Tony Blair first assumed his position as Prime Minister and had to mediate between his sovereign and his constituency, which was mourning her with greater feeling than had been seen publicly, certainly with respect to royalty, in at least a century. In the course of that week the sorrow turned brutally against the royals, to the amazement and confusion of the family itself.
Helen Mirren is Elizabeth - Elizabeth to the teeth, we might say, in a performance that will surely and deservedly earn her an Oscar nomination - and shows us a woman imprisoned by her belief that one must keep one's feelings to oneself, and yet with an unexpected and bone-dry sense of humor (meeting the tongue-tied Blair for the first time she says "If you agree, Prime Minister, the custom is to say yes."). The sleek and slim Mirren has been dressed and made up to look as much as possible like the stout queen, but it is almost unnecessary to pretend to visual accuracy; her performance transcends the literal to let us see well inside the queen. She is no dullard, though she is married to Philip, that prince of dullards. Her son Charles, the father of Diana's boys - one of whom will someday become king himself - meanwhile has a glimmer of what the people want, which is to hear from their queen some word of consolation, some acknowledgment that in spite of the divorce and Diana's 'libertine' lifestyle she understands how they feel.
When the tragedy happens, the royal family is not at Buckingham Palace but at their Balmoral castle in Scotland; it does not occur to them at first to come back to London, nor does it occur to them to hold a royal funeral, or fly the flag over the palace at half-staff (Diana was not royalty when she died). It falls to Blair, himself newly installed, still somewhat in awe of the queen, and yet politically astute enough to realize what the people want and must have, to find the way into Elizabeth's mindset and persuade her to come to London and speak to her subjects. Blair is played here by Michael Sheen with what we've come to see (in reality) as both Blair's intuitive understanding of political questions and his neediness for a stronger figure to attach himself to.
James Cromwell as the narrow Philip, Alex Jennings as an unexpectedly sensitive Charles, and Mark Bazeley as Blair's pragmatic chief of staff Alastair Campbell are all excellent in supporting roles, but the film is held together by Mirren's unbending yet intelligent and perceptive queen. Her transformation during that week, to the point where she does in fact come to the palace, visit with the mourners and speak from her heart, is an amazing piece of work that holds everything in the film together. It is not easy to portray someone still living and visible without slipping into caricature, hagiography or demonization; Mirren does it brilliantly.