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.