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Royal Pain

The Queen manages the near-impossible: a sympathetic, fascinating portrait of British royalty in the wake of Princess Diana’s death

Josh Bell

What The Queen does, remarkably, is humanize that most austere and inexplicable of institutions to the degree that even a dumbfounded American can understand and even value it. (It doesn't account for the immense popularity of Princess Diana, though, which still baffles me.) Taking place in seemingly mundane government meetings and family conversations, The Queen is fascinating, building its procedural and familial interactions into a story with life-changing import, for its main characters as well as an entire nation.

It's anchored by two excellent performances in the roles of two polar-opposite characters: Helen Mirren is Queen Elizabeth II, England's monarch when Diana died in 1997 as well as today, and Michael Sheen is Tony Blair, newly elected as Britain's prime minister a few months before Diana's untimely demise in a car accident in Paris. Elizabeth sees Diana's death as a matter to be handled privately and refuses any official gestures on the part of the royal family since, after divorcing Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), Diana is not technically a royal anymore.

But Blair, elected in a landslide and more in tune with the British people, works doggedly to convince Elizabeth that she risks losing the respect and support of her subjects (already a little shaky) if she doesn't acknowledge a woman that many of them viewed as practically a saint. The stalemate between Blair and Elizabeth could have been fodder for a rote TV movie or a glib statement about how out of touch the royals are with the average people, but Frears' masterstroke is making it a thoroughly sympathetic portrait of Elizabeth, Charles and the entire concept of the monarchy, seen through the eyes of Blair the modernizer, who comes to appreciate their worth even as he endeavors to convince them to emerge from their privileged cocoon.

Like Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, The Queen challenges audiences to see the rich and overprivileged as flawed, real human beings, people who strive to do the right things within the only social and emotional contexts they've ever known. Mirren's Elizabeth is fiercely devoted to her family and to the institution she is charged with upholding, and her development over the course of the film is nothing short of miraculous because of it.










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Mirren plays Elizabeth with the perfect mix of restraint and quiet indignation, and Sheen does nearly as well as the exuberant, well-meaning Blair, who comes off quite well given his recent image as a weak-willed puppet of George W. Bush. The script by Peter Morgan has a few too many overwrought symbols, most notably a stag that Elizabeth's husband, Prince Philip (James Cromwell), takes to hunting with Diana's sons to distract them from grief, but Frears integrates even those with grace and minimizes the distraction from the heart of the story, which is the quiet battle of wills between Britain's two leaders.

Americans may still be a bit put off by the idea of monarchy after seeing The Queen, but they'll certainly have a respect for its particular monarch, a proud woman who, like most people, just wants to do everything she can to protect her family and her way of life.

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