Following his splendid Mrs. Henderson Presents with another take on a British battleaxe, the queen Elizabeth of England, director Stephen Frears offers an intelligent and moving examination of aristocracy in the modern age. It is simply called The Queen.
Nearly ten years ago, glamorous, blonde Princess Diana was violently struck down in a horrible Paris car crash after being hunted by paparazzi. Her shocking death—Diana had been married to Elizabeth's son, Prince Charles (played by Alex Jennings), with whom she had two sons—is The Queen's catalyst, setting off several days in which the aging monarch is tested and irrevocably transformed.
In the exacting Helen Mirren, who has played everyone from Rosalind in Shakespeare's As You Like It to Ayn Rand and countless royals in between, Queen Elizabeth is a dowdy figure of rituals, frowns and constant consternation. Pacing around like a frumpy hausfrau in sensible shoes and a hunched posture, Miss Mirren's Elizabeth is a stubborn person who cares more about tradition than about her nation's mourning or the grief of her grandsons, who are whisked away to hunt with her husband, pompous Prince Philip (James Cromwell).
Elizabeth is much more—she is human—and, while excellent in the part, that is not entirely Miss Mirren's doing. Frears deftly uses footage of the still-striking Diana, whose magnetism continues to radiate, and the images softly demonstrate how one aristocrat can provide a country with someone to look up to; an ideal. As Queen Elizabeth, Miss Mirren exudes a solitary struggle and she is superb—but she walks on the rose petals that Frears has placed in her path.
As the outpouring over Diana's death becomes a wave of a sorrow across the globe, Queen Elizabeth retires to her country estate, where she matter-of-factly tromps about, waiting for updates and petitions from Britain's new prime minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), with whom she quietly cultivates a tacit understanding.
This is a woman who had lived through the Nazi Germans' continuous bombardment of London, been crowned in the midst of man's bloodiest century and raised four children. She had outlasted the Beatles, the Soviets and the Spice Girls. While The Queen does not depict her biography, it suggests that her life parallels the history of Great Britain, the noble country over which she symbolically rules.
Her doctrine, "duty first, self second," however awkwardly stated, means performing her duties above all else, to serve Britain, and it is this idea that guides her to unity with her subjects. With Prime Minister Blair as an unlikely ally (and Sheen is up to the task), she tentatively steps out of denial and into Diana's afterglow to find in one solemn moment in front of Buckingham Palace that she, too, has a place in the sun.
The Queen is a bit overloaded. Sheen as Blair is too boyish at times and his home at 10 Downing Street is domesticated to the point of a pig sty. Each member of the cast, from Sylvia Syms as the queen's mother (Brits call her the Queen Mum) to the delightfully wry Helen McCrory as modern (in the best sense) Cherie Blair, is spot on.
Frears, whose opulent motion picture does not explicitly sanction monarchy, lingers at the end with a leisurely walk in the garden, having treated the audience to what feels like an insider's look at the West's most romanticized royal family—whether any of this is true is an open question—taking one, fond, last look at aristocracy in the United Kingdom.