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"The Queen" is a tale of fiction, but I'm inclined to believe every last moment of it. The picture invites the viewer to watch as a political institution is dropped to its knees, but in traditionally stiff-upper-lip ways. As thin as the story might appear, this is a corker of a drama, shedding light within the dark halls of Buckingham Palace, and giving new appreciation to a Queen who was pushed aside in popularity when she failed to play a modern publicity game effectively.
Director Stephen Frears depicts the summertime death of Diana as a first shot fired in an emotional cold war, ripping open wounds all across the country as the public swarmed the Palace to pay their respects. This woman went from a paparazzi-hunted, charity-inclined, global curiosity to an absolute saint virtually overnight, leaving all those who knew her in a state of shock, and those who detested her now unable to expunge the sour taste from their mouth. As reported over the years, Diana was not loved by the Royal Family, supplying screenwriter Peter Morgan heaps of dramatic ammo to intertwine a story that exploits those animosities, using a backdrop of global mourning to illustrate the realities of the Queen and the changing times that opened her eyes.
"The Queen" blends fact and fiction splendidly. Using actual television footage of Diana and the weeklong memorial gathering, Frears lends the picture a sharp realism to balance with the invention. It's hard to believe we are nearing the 10th anniversary of Diana's death, and "Queen" ushers back all those feelings of confusion, anger, and sorrow that marked the moment in time. The television coverage is the perfect springboard to ponder the Royal side of the tragedy. What did they feel when Diana died? Why did they wait so long to issue a statement?
Morgan's script covers all this and more, describing a Queen who was mystified that she was expected to participate in the mourning, especially following the royal expulsion of Diana after her divorce from Charles. Born into privilege and honor, the Queen is genuinely stunned to see her country and its rabid, unforgiving press turn on her. Frears furthers the idea of personal doubt by inching the walls closer in on her with each passing day she fails to give in to the public's demands.
Tony Blair is shown as a bright-eyed idealist who is caught between his duty to his enthusiastic supporters and the seduction of the crown's history. Wonderfully played by Sheen, Blair is a family man, swallowing pints of fear as he tries to nudge the Queen into submission, and at the same time, finding himself defending her when the criticisms begin to sour and turn personal.
The most interesting characterization is Prince Charles. Seen here as a deviously manipulative wimp, fearful of his mother and beholden to his own selfish concerns, Charles superficially cares about the death of his ex, but is more paranoid that others will want to shoot him as an act of retaliation for his martial woes. Actor Alex Jennings really has his work cut out for him with this iconic role, yet he digs in there bravely to portray Charles's less than noble intentions, along with inhabiting his pressed speaking style and tightly wound face.
Acting as a sun that the rest of the film revolves around, Helen Mirren's performance can only be described as perfection. The cast is remarkable in their own ways, but Mirren's portrayal of the Queen is complex, stately, and vulnerable in every second of screentime. Morgan's script contains a subplot where the Queen empathizes with a hunted buck on her estate, allowing Mirren two moments where her growing feelings of fear are expressly underlined. Trouble is, the film doesn't need this distraction because the range of emotion is registered in Mirren's every move. It's the one rancid ingredient in the whole recipe, and the solitary time Frears doesn't trust his lead actress.
From the outside, I know "The Queen" might seem like a bore, or at least a depressing bit of speculation. However, I assure you, this motion picture gets nearly every dramatic beat right, and gives the death of Princess Diana a whole new meaning and emotional dimension.