- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

It used to be war, poverty and assassination that kept monarchs up at night. Now it’s whether they feel enough.

That odd change in Western society is dramatized in “The Queen.”

Yes, Queen Elizabeth II inspired her people as the only female member of the royal family to serve in the armed forces. But, as “The Queen” would have it, she jeopardized the monarchy because she was insufficiently upset about the death of her son’s ex-wife.

Directed by Stephen Frears (“Dirty Pretty Things”), the film details the days around Aug. 31, 1997, when Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car crash. The queen (Helen Mirren) has barely begun to know her new prime minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who won a landslide in the May election. But when she misjudges the mood of her country, she finds that this green politician wants to teach her a thing or two about the public and the press.

Miss Mirren turns in a predictably savvy performance as the queen. Elizabeth’s dowdy dress must have come as a disappointment after the actress played the other Elizabeth in HBO’s miniseries “Elizabeth I” last year, for which she won an Emmy.

With the addition of a wig and makeup, she looks remarkably like the monarch. But those things don’t make her the queen; her thoughtful interpretation does. Miss Mirren makes visible the monarch collecting herself, gathering her strength for one of the most trying experiences of her reign.

Mr. Sheen played Tony Blair once before for the same director — in Mr. Frears’ 2003 television drama “The Deal.” He’s gotten quite good at it. Mr. Sheen as the prime minister is a childish man — dressed sometimes in a soccer shirt we’d expect to see on a boy — but full of ego.

His wife doesn’t have his soft spot for the royals. Helen McCrory (British TV’s “Anna Karenina”) is a wonderful Cherie Blair. Just walking across the palace, she’s a bundle of attitude. The portrayal seems real, although one wonders if the barrister really cooks.

James Cromwell (“L.A. Confidential”) is a solid Prince Philip, although perhaps not quite as eccentric as that royal appears to be.

We get glimpses of most of the major players here — but not Diana’s two sons. Dramatically speaking, it’s an unfortunate omission, because it makes the queen’s constant refrain of worry for the princes seem rather shallow. “I think the less attention drawn to it, the better for the boys,” she explains of wanting to keep Diana’s funeral low-key. But we never see her comforting them.

“This is a family matter, Mr. Blair, not a fairground attraction,” she declares. But she is wrong. “Sleeping on the streets and pulling out their hair for someone they never knew,” Prince Philip says of the country’s mourners. “And they think we’re mad.”

Mr. Frears has directed a range of interesting films on both sides of the Atlantic, from the 1990 neo-noir “The Grifters” to last year’s Judi Dench vehicle “Mrs. Henderson Presents.” While “High Fidelity” was one of his best films, he seems at his best chronicling British society.

Peter Morgan’s imaginative script has both problems and insights. Some of his attempts at exposition are silly — the queen would certainly know Mr. Blair’s background by the time he was elected.

But he has written some great lines. The Queen Mother, known for a delicious sense of humor, quips after the boys go hunting, “If there is a photographer out there, he could be the first kill of the day.”

“Something’s happened, there’s been a change, some shift in values,” the queen muses at the end. “I don’t think I shall ever understand what happened this summer.”

“The Queen” does an admirable job of showing what happened; it may take longer for any of us to understand it.

***

TITLE: “The Queen”

RATING: PG-13 (brief strong language)

CREDITS: Directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Peter Morgan.

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes

WEB SITE: www.thequeen-movie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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