Her Majesty's Battle Royal

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
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, whose assured résumé includes "Dirty Pretty Things," "Dangerous Liaisons" and "My Beautiful Laundrette," 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.

The queen wins the initial skirmish when she belittles Blair at their first meeting. ("You're my 10th prime minister," she informs him.) Later, when Blair suggests a state-size funeral to accommodate Diana's innumerable well-wishers, Elizabeth is no less withering.

"This is a family funeral, Mr. Blair," she says, "not a fairground attraction."

Blair's returning salvo is an impassioned speech before the TV cameras in which he extols Diana as the "people's princess" -- a direct rebuke to Elizabeth and everything she stands for. The battle continues.

There's a celebrity-gawker's pleasure in watching how closely (or partially) the actors resemble and represent their real-life counterparts. Sheen, who portrayed Blair in a 2003 British TV movie (which Frears directed and Morgan scripted), plays the prime minister with almost unnerving note-by-note perfection. And as his wife Cherie, Helen McCrory, another close look-alike, comes across as a nearly insufferable populist who despises the royals.

On the royal side, James Cromwell makes an extremely bombastic Prince Philip, who calls Diana's A-list mourners "a chorus line of soap stars and homosexuals." Sylvia Syms's tipsy Queen Mother is the Windsors' resident sage, whose advice is informed by a world that no longer exists. And as Prince Charles, Alex Jennings may not be a dead ringer but he's memorable as a benevolent manipulator, moved by Diana's death yet resolved to use it to curry favor with his future subjects.

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.

Frears and Morgan show no such equivocation, however, when it comes to Diana. She's nothing less than a secular saint whose funeral -- which we see in compelling news footage -- brings state leaders, celebrities and common folk alike to Westminster Abbey. There are haunting images of her, particularly in the infamous TV interview in which she spoke of marital troubles with Charles. ("There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.") And the many shots of real people grieving her death before mountains of flowers remain as moving now as they were nine years ago.

Against a spectral force like Diana, and all but corralled into the villain's corner, Elizabeth's only recourse is surrender. The same foreboding odds would seem to daunt Mirren's ability to evoke the audience's sympathy. But the actress, who returns to the British throne after a stunning, Emmy-winning performance as Elizabeth I, takes us on a breathless course from steely resolve to something approaching sensitivity. We parse her every utterance and gesture for the telling sign that portends deeper change.

Of course, we shouldn't hope for too much -- this is based on a true story, after all. But 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.

The Queen (99 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for mild profanity.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company