The Queen

on September 30, 2006 by John P. McCarthy
Loyal British subjects needn't worry about the durability of the crown or the head that wears it, at least in the short term. The New York Film Festival's magisterial opening night film could actually serve to prop up the institution. Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan treat the Royal Family's behavior following Princess Diana's August 1997 death with evenhandedness. “The Queen” doesn't amount to flattery, nor is it an attack or caricature; anti-Monarchists might be disappointed, but this balance is for the best artistically. Helen Mirren's performance will be the focus outside the United Kingdom. She has a better chance of snagging an Oscar than Prince Charles does of ever becoming king.

While engendering sympathy and scorn, “The Queen” shows the Windsors as capable of adapting -- albeit grudgingly and in some cases churlishly. And they and their supporters, as well as the grief-stricken public, have newly elected Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) to thank for whatever protocol concessions were made according to this engaging, fly-on-the-palace-wall look at the days following the “People's Princess” death in Paris. The tumultuous week is bracketed by two meetings between QE II and Blair -- the first on election day in May 1997 when she invites him to form a government, the second two months after Di's state funeral. The relationship between the upstart politician elected on a platform of radical modernization and a duty-bound ruler who personifies Britain's stiff-upper-lip tradition anchors the movie. With wicked dabs of sarcastic humor, Morgan does a tremendous job of depicting the individuals and what they stood for during a time of national crisis. He sidesteps any conspiratorial speculation or any sordid tidbits, focusing instead on a clash of worldviews with constitutional implications.

Fresh off playing the first Elizabeth on HBO, Mirren eschews mimicry and presents an equally iconic and detailed human portrait. Charles (Alex Jennings) and Prince Philip (James Cromwell) are more one-dimensional, while Sheen's Blair is a tad callow. Archival news footage and re-created scenes get spliced together to form a seamless whole that's hugely entertaining and historically informative. Frears begins by putting a line from “Henry V, Part II” -- “Heavy lies the head that wears the crown” -- on a title card, suggesting he sees Elizabeth as a complex tragic heroine. Ardent Royalists and Britons who believe the monarchy is anachronistic and ought to be scuttled both probably take for granted its absurdities, inequities and fascinating complexity. For disinterested viewers, “The Queen” strikes the perfect balance between pomp and politics, comedy and tragedy. Starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam and Sylvia Syms. Directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Peter Morgan. Produced by Andy Harries, Christine Langan and Tracey Seaward. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Running time: 103 min.

Tags: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam, Sylvia Syms, Stephen Frears, Peter Morgan, Andy Harries, Christine Langan, Tracey Seaward, Miramax, Drama

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