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Mirren is majesty, indeed, in 'The Queen'

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It has been reported that the producer of "The Queen" set about casting his lead by asking: Who better to play the Queen of England than the queen of English actresses? I realize there is some competition for this honorific but, as Queen Elizabeth, Helen Mirren gives the mostly subtly expressive performance based on a living historical figure that I've ever seen.

It's so subtle that, at first, I was not exactly sure what it was I was watching. Is it merely letter-perfect impersonation, or perhaps a deadpan send up of the monarchy? The audience I saw the film with was clearly revved up for satire, and when Mirren, with her lemony smile and marcelled hair, shows up looking queenier than the queen, there were titters. Surely director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan are too smart to pass up such a fat target for ridicule? This must be a comedy. But anyone familiar with their work, not to mention Mirren's, would know that the cheap shot is not part of their arsenal. Not that the royal family is spared its share of barbs; it's just that ultimately this is a movie about the bearing and bewilderment of a human being, not a figurehead.

The film, which includes a wealth of actual news clips and is based on interviews with everyone from cabinet ministers to stable hands, focuses on the week in August 1997 following Princess Diana's death in a car crash in Paris. In its immediate aftermath, the queen, sequestered with the royal family in Scotland's Balmoral Castle, fails to comprehend the people's grief for the "People's Princess." She deems the event a "private matter" and assumes everything will blow over.

Recently elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who represents the brave new world of informal protocol and media manipulation, attempts throughout the week to ease the queen into the modern era by having her publicly acknowledge the death to an outraged citizenry grown weary of the monarchy.

On its simplest level, "The Queen" is a nuts-and-bolts docudrama about how a thorny political problem is solved. Blair's machinations, which he believes will certify his newfound popularity, eventually become more favorable to the crown. His famously antimonarchist wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory), sums up the feelings of many when she calls the royals, who also include the Queen Mum (Sylvia Syms), Prince Philip (James Cromwell), and Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), "freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters."

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