THE QUEEN directed by Stephen Frears, written by Peter Morgan, with Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell and Sylvia Syms. 103 minutes. An Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (October 13). For venues and times, see Movies, page 105. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
There's a reason why all drama used to be about gods and monarchs: their conflicts are never just personal. Stephen Frears's new chamber film, The Queen, offers any number of pleasures, but the biggest thrill comes from watching a movie whose interests transcend psychology.
Instead of a story limited by the secret wounds its characters reveal in the final act, The Queen is driven by two forms of state power. Elizabeth Windsor, ruler of Great Britain and a few other fusty territories, was born into a centuries-old lineage that believes its sovereign power springs directly from God. Tony Blair, a new prime minister in 1997 when the story takes place, was elected with one of Britain's largest-ever majorities.
Their first meeting is telling. Blair enters Buckingham Palace on a wave of popular euphoria and runs right into the Queen's implacable chill. "You are my tenth prime minister," she tells Blair with the dead stare of absolute power. "My first, of course, was Winston Churchill."
The Queen pivots on how Blair and Her Majesty react to the death of Princess Diana just months after Blair's election. Frears, whose Sammy And Rosie Get Laid was the last great film about a seismic shift in British culture, here maps the gulf between two very different notions of what it means to govern in the name of the people.
Working from Peter Morgan's precise, understated script, Frears shows how Diana's death became a kind of emotional 9/11 for Britons, robbing the nation of a treasured symbol and demanding of its leaders that they show the way to catharsis.
Blair rises to the occasion, recognizing immediately that "this is going to be massive." Elizabeth, sensitive to her historical role and part of Britain's stoic wartime generation, refuses to grieve in public. The fact that she despised Diana doesn't help. So as she and the royals retreat behind a tweed curtain at Scotland's Balmoral Castle, the nation cries out for a response.
This conflict began in Britain's shrieking tabloids, but Frears rejects camp hysteria and chooses the mood of a political procedural, punctuated by sharp stabs of humour and social observation.
Mirren is a perfect collaborator, using the smallest details of gesture and inflection to open up worlds. Her response to hearing that Diana will have a public funeral is a master class in minimalism. It makes her emotional return to Buckingham Palace operatic by comparison.
She's almost certain to get an Oscar nomination, and deserves it just for the scene in which she warns Blair that the public will inevitably turn on him just as it did on her.