A Nuanced 'Queen'

Friday, October 6, 2006

It's drummed into every British head at some point during elementary school: The queen reigns but she does not rule. That constitutional irony is the chilly but entertaining subtext of "The Queen," Stephen Frears's tragicomedy about the worst public relations crisis at Buckingham Palace since Henry VIII started beheading his wives.

The crisis begins in late August 1997, when Elizabeth II (played with frosty understatement by Helen Mirren) learns of Princess Diana's death. Refusing to make a public statement, the monarch remains sequestered at the royal family's Scottish retreat, hoping the whole thing will go away. Of course, it doesn't. And Elizabeth must learn that the road to the people's hearts is paved with empathy, not protocol.

Frears proves again his uncanny instinct for fascinating matchups. "The Queen," which Peter Morgan scripted, plays as a battle between the forces of modernization -- represented by newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) -- and royal tradition, imperiously defended by Elizabeth.

While it's fair to say "The Queen" gives the Windsors a right royal razzing, it also provides mitigating balance. Mirren's finely calibrated performance reveals a complex woman coping with a bewildering world, and Blair's growing sympathy for his beleaguered monarch gradually becomes ours. This nuanced compassion may not impress the real Queen Elizabeth II, but, for us commoners, it makes for a richer experience.

Watch Mirren as she steps outside her funeral car to inspect the scattered flowers and bouquets, only to find messages of contempt for the House of Windsor. See the pained eyes and the resolute bearing as she maintains her look of deep sympathy for the hushed crowds. Understand what it truly means to reign but not rule.

-- Desson Thomson

The Queen PG-13, 99 minutes Contains mild profanity. At Landmark's Bethesda Row.

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