Tradition and informality collide — and mutually benefit — in the deliciously written and expertly played “The Queen.” Dramatized version of the week following the death of Princess Di, from the different vantage points of the British royal family and newly elected Prime Minis-ter Tony Blair, cheekily mixes on-the-nail perfs and docu footage into a witty and finally moving re-creation of a period that challenged both royals and pols. Toplined by a socko per-formance from Helen Mirren, the small, upscale pic should prove a modest theatrical suc-cess on the back of heavy promo and positive crix, with lotsa ancillary mileage.
Film preemed Sept. 2 at the Venice fest to major plaudits, and should prove a classy opener at the New York fest Sept. 29. It’s the second collaboration between helmer Stephen Frears and scripter Peter Morgan after their 2003 TV movie “The Deal,” which re-created in a similar way the pri-vate arrangement struck between Blair and (current Chancellor) Gordon Brown over sharing of power if New Labor won the election.
Opening on May 2, 1997, “The Queen” picks up almost where “The Deal” left off, as Blair (Mi-chael Sheen, encoring) and wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) are on a high with news of their overnight landslide victory. That day, they go for the traditional audience with the queen (Mirren), to be “invited” to form a new govern-ment. Anti-royalist Cherie is scornful of the whole procedure; Blair is boyishly nervous; the queen is politely scornful of the populist upstarts.
Almost four months later, all the players are woken by news of Diana’s car crash in Paris — “What’s she done now?” gripes Prince Philip (James Cromwell) — and, as they all gather round TVs in their pajamas, her subsequent death. Queen Elizabeth (never a Diana fan) is icily controlled, seeing it as a private family mat-ter. Blair, still hugely popular but untested as a leader, senses a potential crisis in the making. But his spinmeister, Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley), is already on the job, jotting down the words “peo-ple’s princess.”
Caught on their summer vaca-tion at Balmoral Castle in Scot-land, rather than at London’s Buckingham House, Elizabeth battens down the hatches and refuses any official comment. Despite enormous outpourings of national grief and media pressure, she won’t entertain Blair’s request for a public funeral, chiefly on protocol grounds that, when she died, divorced Diana was no longer a member of the royal family.
With the bit between his teeth, egged on by Cherie, Blair opines: “They screwed up her life; let’s hope they don’t screw up her death.” He seizes the political opportunity in an emotive speech in which he uses the term “peo-ple’s princess,” and later is pri-vately supported by Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), who agrees the royals must “modern-ize” and meet the mood of the country.
During the next five days, lead-ing up to Diana’s funeral, the twin poles of protocol vs. pragmatism, private grief vs. public mourning and duty vs. opportunism bend this way and that. The queen, battered by the media, is gradually persuaded by Blair to come out of her foxhole and meet public demand halfway.
What’s cleverest about Mor-gan’s script is that Blair himself is shown learning from the queen’s professionalism and eventual sense of duty, to the point where he defends her against Cherie’s and Campbell’s anti-royal sneers. But his admiration is more that of a political survivor than anything else, of a man still insecure in his new job who can learn from someone who’s been at it for almost half a century.
In one of the script’s several neat refs to the present day, Queen Elizabeth tells Blair that “one day, quite suddenly and without warn-ing, the same thing (public hostil-ity) will happen to you,” rendering the perky pol momentarily speech-less.
Like “The Deal,” pic is essen-tially about the finessing of a problem and the lessons learned during it. But the emotional and ethical borders of “The Queen” are much larger, giving the movie an extra heft that makes it play well on the bigscreen.
Much of that heft also is due to Mirren’s performance, which starts off as simply an uncanny look-alike job, with the cut-glass accent down to a T, and gradually takes on layers of texture. Thesp reaches into the royal’s most private mo-ments — rigorously writing her private diary, or alone on a Scot-tish moor — without tipping into bathos or pure impersonation.
In the latter half, Sheen also manages the same trick, to the point where the crucial phone calls between the two, who only meet face-to-face at start and finish, start to pack a real emotional punch as they find a mutual rap-prochement.
Supports are all on the button, with often creepily accurate body language — from Yank Cromwell’s blithe Prince Philip, through McCrory’s snide Cherie, to Baze-ley’s cocky Campbell and Jennings’ contrite Prince Charles. Roger Allam discreetly fills in the background as the queen’s private secretary, and vet Sylvia Syms is almost unrecognizable as the waspish, seen-it-all Queen Mother, who’s quite content to talk about her own forthcoming fu-neral.
Alexandre Desplat’s music, generally over docu footage, provides a sense of drama at key points. Frears’ decision to shoot the royals’ scenes on 35mm and the Blairs’ on handheld Super-16 — contrasting the formality of the former with the informality of the latter — works far more subtly in practice than it sounds in theory, largely because it’s not overdone by d.p. Affonso Beato (an Almo-dovar regular).
Color in print caught had a slightly muddy quality that actu-ally helps create a sense of “pe-riod” distance, even though that heyday of Cool Britannia was less than 10 years ago.