Despite its generic title and potentially boring subject matter – a few days in the life of today's British royalty – The Queen is a richly acted and utterly compelling look at the political machinations that went into place after the death of Princess Diana in 1997, when newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) eventually forced Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren, Oscar-bound) to set aside propriety by publicly honoring Diana, who by then was disgraced in the royal court and hadn't been favored by Her Majesty in years.
The film very cleverly and slowly manipulates our feelings towards the Queen, at first presenting her as the head of a snobbish royal family that is totally clueless about the expectations of the modern world outside, then eventually suggesting that it was a public obsessed with the tabloid celebrity of Diana who, in their blubbering grief over the death of a passive-aggressive socialite, made a mockery of the dignity that British royalty – and by some extension, Britain itself – had long cherished.
The Queen tells the story of two tragedies. The first and obvious one is Diana's death-by-paparazzi. The less tangible and more profound one is Elizabeth's awakening to royalty's own irrelevance, after centuries of honor and power, in an age where some pipsqueak Prime Minister can tell her how to act and where Elton John plays Westminster Abbey. There's even a third tragedy, a barely-discussed sense of loss – one which might speak loudest to Frears – where the great white hope that was Tony Blair, the first Labour Party leader to become Prime Minister of the UK in eighteen years, would eventually become derided by his own people as George W. Bush's lapdog. Elizabeth, who during that one week became highly educated in the fickleness of the public, delivers this warning to Blair herself.
Politics aside, The Queen stands as a crisp, fascinating look at one of the Western world's most enigmatic public figures, and Helen Mirren performs masterfully as usual. Don't let the suggested pomposity of the subject matter scare you away. This is a strong and thought-provoking piece of entertainment. And I'm glad we have this new wave of biopics (Good Night and Good Luck and Capote being other examples) that tell us much more about their subjects' souls, by honing in on one major event that helped define their lives, than any of those dull cradle-to-grave biographies ever did.
My only complaint: the scene with the deer is stupid.