God save the queen or at least Helen Mirren.
With her chin held skyward and posture rigid, Mirren takes on Elizabeth II in The Queen with such honesty and empathy that she comes mighty close to making the audience actually give a flying flip about the machinations of the monarchy in England. She might as well start building herself an Oscar display case now.
Set in the midst of Princess Diana's tragic death, The Queen scrutinizes the dealings of the royals and then-newbie Prime Minister Tony Blair. But don't start humming Elton John anthems whispering farewell to the "English rose" just yet. The Queen achieves what few docudramas about recent history can: It's neither a touchy-feely walk down memory lane nor is it a scathing condemnation.
Director Stephen Frears' successful and unapologetic re-enactment of the events of 1997 is instead a compelling narrative about family, fame and political power. Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan present the familiar story so well that it makes it easy to forget that no one really cares which crusty, uptight maiden Charles is schtupping. It's brilliant stuff.
Frears' greatest force is Mirren. With a crown of tight curls and a wardrobe of tidy, conservative frocks, hats and pearls, the often-alluring Mirren transforms into the prim Elizabeth. She wears the queen's trademark stoic pout like a mask made for an ancient Greek play. We see mostly that slight, unwavering frown, but we know more is going on underneath. And when she breaks that mask, even subtly, it's powerful.
The press lambasted the royals for hiding out at their Scottish estate while London heaved with swelling displays of public mourning. But Frears takes a more balanced tack. The story is both damning and empathetic to their situation and reactions.
Some of the players namely Prince Charles, the media and the queen's hubby Prince Philip get more of the movie's wrath. Charles (Alex Jennings) comes off as a gutless wonder who can't stand up to his mum, while Philip (James Cromwell) is painted as a curmudgeonly grouch hell-bent on sticking it to Diana. And the paparazzi and British media are portrayed as headline-hungry vultures, which is probably dead-on.
But others fare much better especially Blair (Michael Sheen) and the queen. Sheen wholly embodies the Cheshire-cat-smiling young Labor politician, whom Frears puts on something of a moral pedestal when it comes to dealing with the monarchy. Blair's shown to be savvy with the public respectful of the royal family's position and not crying "off with their heads" like the anti-monarchists around him; yet he's still eager to "modernize" their role in British society.
His populist appeal puts pressure on Queen Elizabeth, who is out of touch with her people, but not so rigid that she can't bend to changing times. Mirren's queen, in fact, is complex. She appears at one moment stuck in another time of doilies and postwar national pride. On the other hand, Mirren shows her to be a devoted grandmother and a caring, deep-thinking soul. She's faithful, loyal and puts her duty and "sacred oath" first.
The beauty of Frears and Morgan's story is that we know what comes next; and it makes the end of the film, when Blair and Elizabeth meet weeks after the dust from Diana's funeral has settled, all the more enjoyable. Basking in victory, he sees a matriarch who has stumbled but survived. She sees an enthusiastic young man who thinks he's schooled her. But like Elizabeth, we know Blair will get his chance to stumble, and there are vultures who won't hesitate to strike when he does.
More than purely a voyeuristic look at the oddities of the royals (but there's a fair deal of that too), The Queen really is a portrait of power. Frears shows us that like Diana's beauty power can be fleeting too. It will slip away when you least expect it.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.