While we were in Philadelphia, PJ and I saw Stephen Frears’s The Queen starring Helen Mirren. I’ve loved Helen Mirren at least since I saw her in Where Angels Fear to Tread. She is also great in Prime Suspect 3, The Madness of King George, Gosford Park, and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Mirren’s performance in The Queen is no exception: she’s brilliant.

The Queen explores the royal family’s response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, a response predicated on tradition and decorum, and juxtaposes it with that of the country’s new prime minister, Tony Blair, played by Michael Sheen, who has been elected to “modernize” the country. Filling out the primary cast of characters are James Cromwell as Prince Philip, Sylvia Syms as the Queen Mother, Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, and Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair.

A Granada production, the movie seems a little made-for-tv at times. The film’s point and its depiction of some of the royals stand out as good examples of this. First, over the course of the movie, Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth must learn to surrender some of her WWII-era notions of the sovereign’s duties, and Sheen’s Blair (and his Labour ministers) must learn to respect the traditional role of the monarchy. While this might be oversimplifying the movie’s point just a bit, it’s only just a bit. I was expecting something a little more complex.

Second, the royals are often depicted more as caricatures than complex characters. The Queen Mum, for example, is little more than a dottering old drunk, and Prince Philip is just an ass. There is a scene in which the queen calls upon her mother for advice, but one doesn’t get a sense of the older woman’s ability to draw upon nearly a century’s experience in the limelight. Instead, you worry that she may not be able to remain upright for an entire conversation. Similarly, Philip is simply always wrong. About everything. One can almost imagine him as one of the angels sitting on the queen’s shoulders, the one giving her bad advice to Blair’s good advice. I also think that James Cromwell is miscast in this role. He seems to be in a different (American-sounding) film than the rest of the actors.

But when you come right to it, The Queen is really about the two leads: Mirren and Sheen, both of whom are superb. Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth as an older woman who is trying to do the right thing but unable to decipher what that is, kind of like when someone’s trying to attach something to an email and just can’t get how to do it. But by the end, she learns that she must listen to her new prime minister (and not just lecture and intimidate him) if the monarchy is going to survive.

Sheen is equally adept at showing Blair’s initial optimism and promise, his embodiment of a new Britain that rejected the politics of Thatcherism. I love Sheen in Wilde (1997), where he plays Robbie Ross, Oscar Wilde’s reputed first male lover. He’s very good here too. The film also makes an implicit comparison between Blair’s former popularity and current troubles.

While most of the peripheral characters are little more than stereotypes, Alex Jennings’s Prince Charles was also very interesting. He manages to make Charles a sniveling weasel who also just happens to have a better understanding of the new Britain than his parents do. I just wish we had seen Camilla too!

On the whole, this is a good film. It does feel a little too much like a movie-of-the-week, but Mirren, Sheen, and Jennings give fine performances, and I certainly hope Mirren finally gets her Oscar due.

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