Elizabeth II ascended the throne just a few weeks after Eisenhower became president, and yet Stephen Frears' smart, moving and altogether engrossing "The Queen" is the first feature film about her. It's likely to remain the best.
Set mostly in the week following the death of Princess Diana, "The Queen" traces the aging monarch's attempt to come to grips both with a population whose extraordinary outpouring of grief is entirely beyond her comprehension and with a new media-savvy prime minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), whose political antennae vibrate in perfect sympathy with the mood swings of the masses.
The result is a fascinating and telling confrontation of old-fashioned British phlegm and newfangled demands that all public figures be emotionally accessible to the people. It's the story, in other words, of how politicians and sovereigns can hold on to their positions only if they consent to become just a special kind of celebrity. That's a story to which even the least Anglophilic among us can relate.
What catapults the film into the first rank is a mesmerizing performance by Helen Mirren, perhaps best known as the star of the PBS import "Prime Suspect." Her Elizabeth is a fiercely complex character, deeply marked by the demands of her bizarre calling, one of which is the lifelong repression of the merely personal. Profoundly unsnobbish, she seems most at ease talking shop with her cooks, gamekeepers and mechanics ("I've broken my prop-shaft," she barks into a phone when she's driven her Land Rover aground on a ford), but is capable of exuding an icy majesty when facing down undesired interference, especially from the men in her life. These include a boorish Prince Philip (James Cromwell) and a simpering Charles (Alex Jennings), whom the film treats mostly as objects of ridicule. At one point Blair ends a phone call with the words, "Let's keep in touch," perhaps failing to notice that he has just issued his sovereign a command. With delicious indifference she replies, "Yes, let's."
At the center of the plot is the question of how the royals will respond to Diana's death. For Elizabeth, this tragedy is a strictly private matter. But the media quickly seize upon her traditional British reserve as a sign of intolerable hauteur. Subject to increasingly skittish entreaties from the prime minister that she give her grief a public airing, the queen is brought to a painful awareness of the strange new world that has taken shape while she raised her beloved corgis in the Scottish Highlands.
In front of the news cameras, Blair shows himself, by contrast, right at home. Calling Diana "the people's princess," he at once cements his political position and endears himself to the populace, composed, as the queen mother tartly puts it, of "hysterics carrying candles" who need help with their grief. But "The Queen" asks about the cost of this glib sentimentality. When he talks to Elizabeth in person, Blair comes off as genial, but comparatively shallow and unformed, the king of the pygmies. Even as the Queen comes around to his views, Blair recognizes Elizabeth as, in many respects, a master.
Frears scored his first hit here with the still indispensable "My Beautiful Launderette" (1985), with its embrace of gays, punk and a postimperial immigrant culture that seemed utterly opposed to the supposed virtues of old England. Surprising that he should now turn a sympathetic, if judiciously critical, eye on the royals. But when Elizabeth graciously receives the curtsies of old women at the gates of Buckingham Palace, we know we're witnessing the last rites of an epoch that is no less noble for being untelegenic. Like Elizabeth, these women were schooled on the austerities of war and sacrifice to the nation. Even Frears appreciates the old rigors that have, of necessity, been tossed aside to make way for the new openness. Although it would have taken a dreadful director to make Mirren's remarkable performance look bad, Frears has adopted a beautifully restrained style that makes it all the more moving. Only once do we see Elizabeth give way to grief and sob whether for Diana, her family or herself is not clear. But even then, we don't really see her. Frears keeps the camera at her back, as if to rebuke our desire to see every weakness ferreted out and exposed. It's a defining moment in this film about an extraordinary woman's wish to keep a few shreds of her inner life to herself. (PG-13) 97 min. ***** S