'The Queen': Britain's odd couple, Blair and Elizabeth II
In the history of political poker, the week between the shocking death of Princess Diana and her funeral might be the only time that a jack trumped a queen. At stake was the monarchy itself.
So suggests "The Queen," Stephen Frears' piercingly funny and unexpectedly moving account of that odd couple, Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and HRH Elizabeth II (majestic Helen Mirren) and their back-channels affair.
After Di's fatal car accident in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997, the newly-elected PM takes the temperature of his grieving nation, diagnoses that it needs a Mourner-in-chief and eulogizes the deceased as the "people's princess." Relying on her own counsel, the Queen holds that whether or not Diana was a royal pain, divorce deprived her of royal status. Protocol dictates a private funeral.
How the modernizing PM persuades the traditionalist HRH to change the course of the ship of state -- and how she deepens his appreciation for its captain -- is the core of this lightning-paced entertainment that unfolds at the crossroads of gossip and history.
And therein lies its fascinating question: Do the masses want a leader to follow their lead or a leader who will lead them?
It is a challenge to make a comedy about a tragedy, yet Frears ("Dirty Pretty Things," "High Fidelity") rises to the occasion, with the help of screenwriter Peter Morgan's witty script. Co-writer of "The Last King of Scotland," Morgan proceeds from Aldous Huxley's astute observation that, "We participate in tragedy; in comedy we only look."
And what a spectacle it is, with New Labor leadership earning political capital by upstaging the palace. And with the monarchs retreating to Balmoral in Scotland, ostensibly to seek privacy for their grandsons.
How much of the film is true? I agree with the British journalist who observed that Morgan has created his own genre, the "some of what you are about to see is true" story. Essentially he does what Shakespeare did in his plays: Imagine himself in the shoes and shadows of historic figures.
Compassionate as it is critical, satirical as it is serious, "The Queen" is less a docudrama than a political romantic comedy. Its concern is how the Labor leader and the wary wife of Windsor change each other.
Brilliant as Morgan's script is, it is Helen Mirren's diamond-hard performance that is the jewel of "The Queen's" crown.
Bewigged, powdered and padded to resemble the dowager of dowdy chic, replete with George Washington coif and that patent-leather lunchbox of a handbag, Mirren seems inexpressive as a statue. Which, of course, makes the exasperated flutter of an eyelash suggest contempt, the tense scrunch of a pursed lip extreme rage.
Mirren's is the rarest and subtlest of performances, communicating both the frosty command of the throne and the human frailty of an overprotective matriarch clutching a hot water bottle as if it could heal her grandsons' grief. Hers is not an impersonation, but a personification of a woman who happens to be a queen.
About Mirren's Oscar prospects, let's just say that protocol demands that Meryl Streep's queen of mean in "The Devil Wears Prada" curtsey to Mirren's "Queen."
Sheen's smiling Tony Blair, all deference and dimpled resolve, is likewise excellent, if not commanding. It is the conceit of Morgan's script that the PM is henpecked both by his anti-monarchist wife (saucy Helen McGrory) as well as the monarch herself.
Frears can't help himself -- who could? -- but show QE II waddling down the palace stairs trailing a retinue of jaunty Corgis.
I kneel in complete admiration to Frears, Morgan and Mirren for a movie that finds the common ground between antimonarchists who think the royals are "freeloading, emotionally-retarded nutters" (per Cherie Blair in the film) and Republicans who believe they are the institutional memory and soul of a nation.
Produced by Andy Harries, directed by Stephen Frears, written by Peter Morgan, photography by Affonso Beato, music by Alexandre Desplat, distributed by Miramax.
Running time: 1 hour, 43 mins.
Cast: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Helen McCrory, Sylvia Sims
© 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.