The Queen

In theaters.

Helen Mirren was born to play royalty. Many actors can exude the condescension, self-assurance, and entitlement of aristocracy, but Mirren can do so without sacrificing her character’s humanity and vulnerability: a real feat. In The Queen, Mirren dramatizes one of Elizabeth II’s least sympathetic moments—the Windsors’ tone-deaf handling of Princess Diana’s death—and turns Queen Elizabeth’s plight into real tragedy, an aging woman’s realization that she has lost touch with contemporary culture, that her once-lauded stoicism is no longer valued in the pornographically emotional world of talk shows and tabloids and reality TV.

Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Peter Frears, The Queen is a sort of docudrama comedy of manners about the tension between Her Royal Highness and the newly elected prime minister, Tony Blair, played by Michael Sheen. In retrospect, I find it remarkable that the filmmakers managed to make such a compelling movie out of a story without any real “action,” just people watching the news on television and making agitated (but oh-so-polite) telephone calls. And yet all 97 minutes of nonaction—especially the scenes between Mirren and Sheen—are thoroughly absorbing.

L’Enfant et les sortilèges and Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3

The New York Philharmonic on Friday, October 6.

Sneering at melody is one of the classic postures of the music snob. To describe a composer as a “mere melodist” is to condemn his or her work as shallow crowd-pleasing: pretty tunes with nothing of substance underneath them. I usually dismiss that sort of criticism. It underestimates how difficult it is to write a truly memorably melody, and it often overlooks the other qualities of the music in question.

But in the case of Camille Saint-Saëns’ third symphony, well, I think it’s the sort of work that gives melody a bad name in critical circles. I enjoy much of the composer’s other music, but listening to the so-called Organ Symphony, I recall Claude Debussy’s great put-down: “I have a horror of sentimentality, and I cannot forget its name is Saint-Saëns.”