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.
Mirren’s performance is flawless: Her impersonation of Queen Elizabeth feels genuine rather than merely imitative. She can convey a flicker of self-doubt with only a blink of her eyes or a crackling sense of humor with a miniscule quirk of tightly pressed lips. The sense of intimacy she creates—the illusion that we are in the presence of Elizabeth Windsor rather than Her Royal Highness—is deeply compelling, even for someone like me who has never really cared about royalty and has no strong feelings about Diana or her death one way or the other.
Mirren also brings out the best in Sheen, whose performance is less convincing when he is on his own. I found one scene particularly unpersuasive. Blair’s staff members are making derisive comments at the royal family’s expense, and Blair, who has found new respect for the queen, angrily defends her. The character’s arc makes sense, but Sheen overplays it, shouting and stomping out of the room and slamming the door. With a calmer, drier delivery, the scene would have been much more effective.
But the screenplay had its faults, too. Toward the end of the film, Queen Elizabeth tells Blair that he has defended her publicly in part because he fears the day when he himself will be castigated by public opinion. Morgan’s screenplay lays the foreshadowing on thick, and Frears’ direction underlines it, and it all feels too smug. We know that Blair, too, will fall from grace. It’s already happened—Blair killed his reputation and legacy when he allied himself with the Bush administration—so it’s a bit rich for Morgan and Frears to cast their hindsight as foresight.
But these are relatively minor quibbles with what is actually a very good movie. Its examination of what people expect from public figures is insightful and poignant but never stuffy. In fact, The Queen is surprisingly funny and versatile in its humor: sharply witty and whip-smart one minute and happy to use Elizabeth’s swarm of corgis in a visual gag the next.
But however good The Queen might be, any greatness belongs to Mirren alone. She stands at the center of the movie, anchoring it and giving it its emotional depth. After two previous Oscar nominations without a statue, this might finally be Dame Helen Mirren’s year to reign.