Take Two

by Luke Bumgarten & r & & r & The Queen & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he death of Diana, former Princess of Wales, though a tragedy, has been mined for more weepy moments, more sensationalism and more self-parodying Elton John/Bernia Taupin collaborations than the deaths of Gandhi and Jesus combined. Or that's how it seems. We're at a transitional point in the mythologizing now, though: A decade after, the wounds of her death are neither fresh nor completely healed. We've gained a bit of objectivity, but the emotions surrounding Diana's death still have a visceral immediacy for many people. Wich means its a good time for director Steven Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan's new wrinkle, the tragedy of Diana seen through the lens of her estranged mother-in-law. In order for The Queen to work -- which it does -- the filmakers need both our empathy for Diana and our understanding for her Queen.

The film focuses on Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair during the week immediately following Diana's death in August 1997. The royal family escapes to the country to mourn -- an act that is treated by them as the only natural course of action. Meanwhile, the first mourners begin to congregate outside Buckingham Palace, where Diana's body awaits burial. Blair, thrust into leadership only months before, earnestly wants to offer England his condolences. His office, eager to reap a political windfall, wants him to assume the mantle of "mourner-in-Chief." He does, with grace, thoughtfulness and brilliant speechwriting.

Elizabeth and her family, meantime, remain in seclusion, mourning the way royalty have for centuries. They don riding breeches and go hunting. As the public mourning ramps up, though, and the people begin to look to their queen to share in their grief, Elizabeth must come to terms with growing public estrangement and the fact that she's being asked to mourn a former princess who had deeply hurt her.

Morgan suggests Blair's actions are garish but necessary, concluding that Elizabeth must, as a matter of survival, change. He laments the dead ideal that strong, silent figureheads buffer and fortify national resolve while realizing that the English no longer like their upper lips quite so stiff. The gradual process of realization that he and Frears put Mirren's Elizabeth through is startling in its subtlety.

The Queen is not an unqualified success, however. There are a couple strong supporting performances -- Sylvia Syms brings a gale of complex emotions to the role of the Queen Mum -- but the film runs on the power of Helen Mirren's performance. James Cromwell is uncharacteristically wooden as Prince Philip and couldn't help but be otherwise. This is so completely a portrait of the Queen and Mr. Blair that there's no room for the other roles to be anything but character foils. Squeezing the locus of action that closes around Elizabeth and Blair, though, allows Frears some wonderful, candid commentary.

The question Frears and Morgan manage to keep at the forefront, through all the political brokering, the public grandstanding and the bedside rants, is whether Elizabeth's actions are the result of precedent, propriety or simply her pride. Keeping that focus excuses, to some extent, the lack of depth at the periphery and turns what was always a gaudy tabloid spectacle into a tale of inner conflict. Throughout, the film centers on a queen gradually awakening to a nation in need and struggling with how to comfort them.

Though Elizabeth herself isn't the most sympathetic character, The Queen made me understand, to the extent that a yankee can, the deep bond that still exists between England and its royal family. (Rated PG-13)