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‘The Queen’ full of masterful performances

Mirren so fully becomes Queen Elizabeth that the film eerily feels like a privileged, stolen peek at life inside the palace walls.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Playing a living, universally known figure has to be one of the biggest challenges an actor can face.

That’s what makes Helen Mirren’s performance as Queen Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’ “The Queen” such a marvel. Mirren bears only a passing resemblance to her majesty, and “The Queen” is a fictionalized extrapolation of the royal family in crisis amid the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in 1997.

Yet Mirren so fully becomes Elizabeth, the film eerily feels like a privileged, stolen peek at life inside the palace walls. Her Elizabeth is such a commanding presence — icily august one moment, mournfully human the next — Mirren could emerge as a best-actress front-runner at the Academy Awards.

A thoughtful, respectful, wonderfully sly study of stuffy, closed-door tradition clashing with today’s culture of public spectacle, “The Queen” follows Frears’ pairing last year with another grand dame of British cinema, Judi Dench, in “Mrs. Henderson Presents.”

Except for a brief prologue and epilogue, “The Queen” takes place entirely during the week following Diana’s death. Yet Frears — whose credits include “High Fidelity” — and screenwriter Peter Morgan manage to turn the story into a rich film biography examining Elizabeth’s entire reign and even the legacy she’ll leave.

The film probes her ascension to the throne as a young woman whose father may have been driven to an early death by kingly pressures, through her iron-willed role as caretaker of the institution in an age when the relevance of royalty is uncertain.

“The Queen” opens with Elizabeth’s chilly first meeting with Britain’s eager new pup of a prime minister, Tony Blair, magnificently embodied by Michael Sheen, who previously played Blair in Frears’ TV movie “The Deal.”

A few months later comes the early-morning call about the car crash in Paris that killed Diana as her driver sped in front of pursuing photographers. The nation is thrown into profound grief, while Blair’s proclamation of Diana as the “people’s princess” puts his nascent, shaky role as leader onto sounder footing.

Meantime, Elizabeth, husband Prince Philip (James Cromwell), and the rest of the royals remain holed up in Balmoral, the family’s Scottish retreat. The queen is adamant that she owes no words of comfort, kindness or tribute to her subjects over Diana, who was no longer a member of the royal family after her divorce from Prince Charles.

The press, public and Blair’s government see it differently, their exasperation intensifying to near rage as the royal family bumbles about its business as if nothing has happened.

“Will someone please save these people from themselves?” Blair seethes over the queen’s indifference to the public clamor.

Blair emerges as a white knight for Elizabeth, their differences in age and ideology evaporating as the prime minister doggedly exhorts the queen to do the right thing and console a wounded country.

Morgan’s dialogue is razor-sharp and packed with surprising humor that the actors weave very naturally into the dark drama playing out between a queen and her people.

The film races along at a riveting pace, Frears judiciously punctuating the cloistered exchanges inside the seats of power with archival footage of Diana and the assemblage of mourners outside Buckingham Palace.

Along with the imperiously indignant Cromwell, the supporting cast is brilliantly rounded out by Alex Jennings as a skittish Prince Charles, Helen McCrory as Blair’s wily wife, Roger Allam as the queen’s diligent aide and Sylvia Syms as the queen mother, who is often hilarious in her regal dismissiveness of the outside world.

Though they share relatively little screen time, Mirren and Sheen forge a deep connection, the formal relationship between queen and politician subtly underlined with deference, doubt, anxiety and even traces of affection.

Either performance easily could have lapsed into caricature, but Mirren and Sheen present gracious, humane portraits of two people whose conviction over their place in the world is shaken by unprecedented circumstance.

“The Queen” debuts a month after Mirren won an Emmy for her portrayal as the monarch’s predecessor and namesake in the miniseries “Elizabeth I.” How fitting — and well deserved — if Mirren were to take home an Oscar for playing the Elizabeth of modern times.