Fri, Feb 02, 2007 - Page 16 News List

If the crown fits, wear it

'The Queen' pries open the palace gates to reveal a monarch out of touch with 'the people'



Is there something in the air, say, the stench of death and decline of empire, to have inspired the recent spate of films about imperial power? Fashionistas of course are already worshiping at the altar of Marie Antoinette, with its title bubblehead and hollow charms, while Forest Whitaker devotees are savoring the outre venality of Idi Amin in the rather too enthusiastically entertaining Last King of Scotland. Those who think more crowned heads should have rolled in the 18th century, in the meantime, can cozy up to The Queen, a sublimely nimble evisceration of that cult of celebrity known as the British royal family.

Directed by Stephen Frears from a very smart script by Peter Morgan, who helped write The Last King of Scotland, also about crazy rulers and the people who love (and hate) them, The Queen pries open a window in the House of Windsor around the time of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, blending fact with fiction. It begins just days before her fatal car crash in 1997, when the princess, glimpsed only in television news clips and photographs, had completely transformed into Diana, the onetime palace prisoner turned jet-setting divorcee. The transformation was fit for a fairy tale: the lamb had been led to slaughter (cue Madonna's Like a Virgin) and escaped in triumph (crank the Material Girl's Bye Bye Baby). Elizabeth II wore the crown, but it was Diana who now ruled.

How heavy that crown and how very lightly Helen Mirren wears it as queen. With Frears' gentle guidance, she delivers a performance remarkable in its art and lack of sentimentalism. Actors need to be loved, but one of Mirren's strengths has always been her supreme self-confidence that we will love the performance no matter how unsympathetic the character. It takes guts to risk our antipathy, to invite us in with brilliant technique rather than bids for empathy. Even Whitaker's Idi Amin seems to shed some tears. Mirren's queen sheds a few too, but having climbed deep inside Elizabeth II, a vessel as heavily fortified as a gunship, she also coolly takes her character apart from the inside out, piece by machined piece.

Film Notes:

The Queen

Directed by: Stephen FrearsStarring: Helen Mirren (the Queen), Michael Sheen (Tony Blair), James Cromwell (Prince Philip), Sylvia Syms (the Queen Mother), Alex Jennings (Prince Charles), Helen McCrory (Cherie Blair), Roger Allam (Sir Robin Janvrin), Tim McMullan (Stephen Lamport)Running time: 103 minutesTaiwan Release: today

This toughness is bracing, at times exhilarating, and it also reminds you of just how very good a director Frears can be; certainly it's a relief after the shameless pandering in his last venture, Mrs. Henderson Presents. The new film serves as a return to form for the director not only of Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters, both of which share with The Queen an interest in toxic tribal formations, but also of more freewheeling ensemble entertainments like Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. The focus in The Queen remains fixed on Elizabeth and her relationship with the newly elected prime minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), but it also finds room for a host of smaller, precisely realized characters, each adding daubs of gaudy or grim color.

The secondary characters prove especially crucial because it's through their dealings with The Queen, their awe and boobishness (including James Cromwell's dim-bulb Prince Philip), that we start to get a handle on her. A creature of history and ritual, Elizabeth might have been born in another century (or on another planet), a point Morgan lays out on the page and which Frears illustrates with lapidary attention to visual detail. Much of the story takes place inside Buckingham Palace and at Elizabeth's Scottish estate Balmoral, sepulchers in which the royals have shut themselves up with their servants and riches. Certainly The Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) seems half-dead already, her carefully planned funeral almost an afterthought. It's no wonder the outside world seems so intrusive, even when its knocks are delivered by white glove.

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