There are some of us who knew in the first five minutes of THE QUEEN that at the very least Helen Mirren in the title role of Queen Elizabeth II would be nominated for every acting award out there. The wistful yet unselfconsciously regal way in which she discuses the election with the artist painting her portrait, wondering what it would be like to cast a ballot, which constitutionally she is forbidden to do. There in full regalia, crown on head, the essence of monarchy, yet she is curious about how everyone else lives in much the same that everyone else is curious about her. She is witty, dry, reserved, and instinctively in control. Until her ex daughter-in-law, Diana, is killed in an auto accident in Paris and the people demand that their sovereign behave in a way that suits them, not Her Majesty.
Her new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, himself just a bit bowled over by the royal presence, is put in the uncomfortable, not to mention thankless, task,] of pushing and pulling the Windsors into the late 20th century. That he is also caught in the middle of their family differences doesn’t help, but does make for fascinating viewing. It might be cutthroat all around, but it’s all executed so very, very politely everywhere except the press. There Elizabeth is subjected to the first bad press of her life and reign, with vitriol screaming from the headlines that respect no rank or precedent.
There are two commentary tracks. The one with director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan reveals the bluff and hearty curmudgeon who is Frears, and Morgan, quick-witted and pithy. Frears makes a point of mentioning such things as the fact that nothing was filmed where it happened, and noting with obvious relish that in one scene Mirren is photographed on one coast of Scotland and in the next, set just outside the door of the first, she is on the other. He laments lines that had to be cut, grouses about people nitpicking the finer points of royal regalia, and gives credit where it is due (if he can remember) for nice bits of filmmaking that had been attributed to him. It is as much a character sketch of the director himself as the film is one of the monarch.
And as for that sketch, Mirren performance is as astonishing the tenth time as it was the first as she brings a very human warmth to someone who has been trained since childhood to be an icon. Moving effortlessly from imagined scenes to recreations of news footage, she forges the link between the public Elizabeth, castigated for being cold and small-hearted, and the private woman who ranks duty above everything else and is slow to realize that the definition of duty has changed, and that she is not the one to decide on the definition. Shocked to the core that her opinion on the subject isn’t welcome, much less necessary. It becomes another election in which she is not allowed to vote.
The other track is done by the film’s consultant, British historian and royal expert Robert Lacey, author of many books about the monarchy and Elizabeth II. He is far less colorful that either Frears or Morgan, but the context he provides makes up for that lack. Details about points of protocol, etiquette, and the hairstyle to which the Queen has been devoted for many years, are filled in. He also chimes in using posh elocution with educated guesses and informed opinions about what the royal family might have been thinking during the behind-the-scenes sequences of them reacting to the Diana’s death and the shock to their collective system over the public’s reaction to that and then to their official, protocol-correct, response. There is also the de rigeur “making of” featurette, though it is well done and avoids most of the clichés of the genre.
THE QUEEN is a showcase for a superb writer and a perceptive director. But this is Mirren’s film. She is an actress with a seemingly endless capacity to surprise and to delight while delivering a performance that is intelligent, supremely assured, and fascinating on levels from the emotional turmoil of a forced and uncomfortable self-reflection, to the measured instincts of a political animal. There may have been performances on film as good, but there have never been any better, and darned few that come close.