leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh
Dryly funny and unexpectedly poignant, Stephen Frears' restrained comedy of manners weaves together decorous gossip and a fascinating look beneath the facade of pomp and ritual to capture Britain's royal family — particularly Helen Mirren's vivid Queen Elizabeth II — enmeshed in a crisis they're blithely unaware is unfolding around them. Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan could have skewered them for their eccentricities — all those fusty, fabulously wealthy aristocrats clomping around their Scottish summer estate in Balmoral in sensible shoes and kilts, more concerned with stag hunting and Welsh corgis than the popular outpouring of grief for "People's Princess" Diana Spencer. But their subtle dissection of the complex relationship between the queen, the living embodiment of the traditional English virtues of restraint, propriety and stoicism, and brash new prime minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), whose populist, media-savvy government represents the exact opposite, produces a much richer result than slashing satire ever could. August, 1997: Blair, who campaigned on a promise to modernize Britain, has barely taken office when news comes from Paris that the former Princess of Wales has died in a car accident. Blair recognizes a media circus in the making, and, with the help of chief spokesman Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley), who coins the term "People's Princess," promptly comes down on the right side of it. The queen and her family, cocooned by staffers, blinkered by old-fashioned notions of rigid decorum and prejudiced by their long-standing distaste for celebrity in general and Diana in particular, land themselves squarely on the wrong side. As weeping crowds gather outside Buckingham Palace, lighting candles and laying an ocean of flowers at the gate, the royals remain silent, insisting that Diana's death is a private matter and sniffing among themselves that she wasn't even a member of the family anymore. Days pass, public sentiment becomes increasingly ugly, and it falls to Blair — whose own wife (Helen McCrory) is an outspoken antiroyalist — to delicately steer the queen in the right direction, despite the splenetic harrumphing of her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh (James Cromwell), and the wrongheaded insistence of her own mother (Sylvia Syms) that the British people will rediscover their stiff upper lips if only the queen leads the way. Mirren, who's played her share of queens in the past, is hypnotic, but it's her prickly rapport with the slick, smiling Sheen that makes the movie crackle — not in a vulgar way, mind you, but with such brilliant control that a slightly arched eyebrow speaks louder than a dozen cackling commentators with microphones.