What do people owe a monarch? What does a monarch owe her subjects? When a ruler's power becomes purely decorative, can it even be called power anymore? What happens when the ruler herself realizes this?
These are some of the questions given terrific depth and flesh in Stephen Frears's ``The Queen," a subtle, often very funny, ultimately touching tragedy of royal manners and meaning. Written by Peter Morgan (``The Last King of Scotland") and featuring a precise, hand-crafted performance by Helen Mirren as HRM Queen Elizabeth II, the film's a remarkable chamber drama set on a national stage.
Indeed, not understanding that paradox is what gets the film's royal family in trouble. The Windsors have lived so long in a cage of symbolism they no longer see the bars.
Part of the People magazine-style guilty pleasure of ``The Queen," of course, is that it lets us peep behind the closed doors of Buckingham Palace and Balmoral Castle as the royal family copes with the aftermath of the death of Lady Diana Spencer -- the national paroxysm of mourning, the mounting outrage over Queen Elizabeth's refusal to make official gestures of grief. I can't think of any other movie that has dared (or stooped to) what this one does: a fictional portrait of still-sitting heads of state, with characters we know from the sides of coins chewing over private anxieties at breakfast and in boudoirs.
True, maybe Prince Philip (James Cromwell ) didn't look at news footage of the young Diana at her wedding and mutter, ``She was a nice girl. Then," but it's extremely amusing to think so. It's possibly even revelatory.
Frears and Morgan keep the action to one week in early September 1997 , during which the Windsors and their subjects sharply diverged. Caught between the two like Wile E. Coyote straddling trains headed in opposite directions is the newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen ), who's at first as appalled as anyone over the queen's cluelessness. ``Will someone please save these people from themselves?" he moans, shortly before realizing that that someone will have to be him.
To the populace, Di was ``the people's princess," hounded to her death by in-laws, the media, and the public; their self-chastising guilt just whips the flames higher. To the queen, she was a shameless ex-daughter-in-law who wasn't shy about her celebrity. Of course there shouldn't be a state funeral, Elizabeth maintains, since the divorced Diana was no longer a member of the royal family. The drama of the film -- and it's both delicious and potent -- lies in how the queen comes to understand this error in judgment and how it rattles her as a human being. ``I've never been hated like that before," she says at one point, and there, very quietly, is the shock of a waxwork startled to realize she's still alive.
The fringes of ``The Queen" are filled with deft portraits of people living and invented; I especially liked Helen McCrory, as Cherie Blair, slagging the Windsors as ``emotionally retarded nutters." (She subsequently wonders whether her husband's concern for Elizabeth is some sort of ``mother thing.") Without intending to, ``The Queen" also becomes a testimony to all the secretaries and sub-assistants who keep the enterprise that is Great Britain rolling forward while protecting the queen, her husband, their heir (Alex Jennings as a dithery, well-meaning Prince Charles), and the Queen Mum (the venerable Sylvia Syms) in a bubble of privilege.
The Windsors stayed at Balmoral, their Scottish summer getaway, for most of that week, ignoring the flowers piling up at Buckingham Palace and the increasingly angry tone of the media until Blair practically ordered them to get back to London and start making conciliatory speeches. The film presses the case that the monarchy was close to tottering; in Sheen's enthusiastic, exasperated portrayal, Blair is acting in the interests of national psychology.
The way Mirren plays her, Elizabeth Windsor believes she is the national psychology -- the soul of her country as well as its face. Mirren's achievement is to entwine that noblesse oblige with the hardheaded insights of a global leader and a woman's flickering emotions. Often a coolly sexual actress, Mirren banishes that part of herself in ``The Queen." The face is regally still, the lips prim, the eyes watchful and curious. She puts her reading glasses on in three distinct steps, as if mandated by separate acts of Parliament. If your grandmother ran a first-world country, this is what she'd look like.
We also glimpse the young woman who ascended the throne at 26, still ardent under the weight of duty. And we get the veteran of a half-century of public life who has seen 10 prime ministers fall in and out of public favor. ``One day it will happen to you," she blandly informs Blair, ``quite suddenly and without warning." We don't need yesterday's newspaper to know she's right.
There are the corgis, obviously, and an unfussy love of the outdoors: a marvelous scene in which the queen manhandles a Range Rover up the hills of Balmoral leads to the movie's one misstep, an encounter with a stag that's a mawkish stand-in for the doomed Diana. So good is Mirren, though -- so real does she make this woman whom you and I will never know -- that you sense Elizabeth recognizes the truth of the symbolism even as she finds it a bit much. Taste can carry you only so far, and ``The Queen" is about a woman finally understanding she's a reflection of her people rather than the other way around.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.