November 9, 2006

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The Queen (PG-13)
HRH Elizabeth is miffed when her country cries and snivels over the death of Princess Diana in The Queen, an understated, smart little biopic.

Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) doesn't entirely understand or trust the desires and emotions of her modernity-craving subjects. She's not particularly thrilled when new prime minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) shows up to officially take control of the government after Labour trounces the Tory party in national elections. She's constantly wearied by the actions of Diana, divorced from the family but still center to its public woes. The look on her face is a permenant slight eyebrow arch of "yes, what now?"

"What now" is the look on her face when she's called out of bed in the middle of the night and told about the car accident in Paris that has left Diana gravely injured. Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) is more emotional and when he's finally told that she has died he begins to weep. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is worried about her grandchildren and deeply desiring to keep the matter quiet, believing, as she does, that Diana's no-longer-HRH status makes her death less of a public matter.

As we all know, Elizabeth is completely, utterly wrong.

Blair quickly gauges the country's mood and gives a speech lionizing her as "the people's princess." The royals, however, stay at their country home in Balmoral with Charles' young sons going stag hunting with their grandfather, Prince Philip (James Cromwell), and the family going to church and having picnics. As their nation becomes nearly consumed with grief and turns out in the thousands to leave flowers at the gates of royal palaces and sign condolence books, the family essentially says nothing. Members of Blair's staff and even his wife (Helen McCrory) take the silence as a sign that the monarchy is out of touch and, potentially, a sign that it has outlived its usefulness even as a national symbol. As the days of royal silence (not even the flag above Buckingham Palace is flown at half staff) wear on, the public's feelings toward the monarchy become full of anger. After all, as cards and letters left with the flowers suggest, wasn't it the royal family who made her life so difficult?

Blair, however, is conflicted. Though he becomes the hero of the tragedy, he seems genuinely concerned about the royals, specifically about the Queen. He seems to feel that she is some vital part of what makes Britain Britain and more than even the increase of his own political stature, he seems to want to make her understand what it is she needs to do.

Near the end of The Queen, Elizabeth tells Blair that the negative public opinions directed at her, so suddenly and surprisingly, will one day be directed at him, just as suddenly. Google the embattled, lame-duck-ish prime minister and you'll see that she was right. People are fickle, especially when it comes to what they want from their leaders. This part of the movie's theme is universal.

What is more specifically British (and therefore more integral to the movie's excitingly behind-the-scenes feel) are the very un-American ideas of a person who believes her leadership role is God's will (OK, insert your George W. Bush joke here) and a system of laws that more or less backs up that belief. Elizabeth, sensible anchor of an at times very silly and ridiculous-acting family, is presented with the death of a woman she didn't like but to whom she was once connected and who was the mother of her grandchildren. Raised during the war years, Elizabeth is one familiar with the stiff upper lip, not the public cry. At the one point in the movie where she permits herself to shed tears, she is all alone and has her back turned to the camera it's an action so deeply private that not even her husband sees it. She does not understand a Britain that does not feel the same way. She seems to want to comfort her son but she also seems aggravated by him when he goes on at length about what a warm mother Diana was, she seems to hold her face unnaturally stiff so as to present her eyes from doing a full floor-to-ceiling eye roll.

In the days after Diana dies, Elizabeth never seems to waver in her belief that surely the country will get past this. She is genuinely shocked when the call for some royal response gets louder and even when she's forced into speaking she doesn't seem to believe it's necessary. She also doesn't entirely get that the world only knows the beautiful, poised, saint-like Diana, not the completely out-of-her-depth woman Elizabeth knew (we get the sense that Elizabeth saw her as immature, to say the least).

Elizabeth's inner turmoil and her (polite, naturally) clash with modern Britain (as personified by Blair) make for some truly engrossing and enjoyable watching. The movie is dishy without being trashy, lifting the royals out of the tabloids to give them at least the appearance of actual human beings. B+

Rated PG-13 for strong language (but, you know, it's British strong language). Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Morgan, The Queen is 97 minutes long and is distributed by Miramax Films. The movie is playing at several local theaters and will run at Wilton Town Hall Theatre starting on Friday, Nov. 10.

Amy Diaz