Helen Mirren stakes her claim for this year's Best Actress Oscar with a marvelous performance as Queen Elizabeth II.
The film begins in the spring of 1997, with the election of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) as the new Prime Minister. He goes to the palace for his first official meeting with the Queen, for whom this sort of thing is old hat. "After all," she reminds him, "you are my tenth Prime Minister; my first was Winston Churchill."
Leap forward to August, and the death of Princess Diana, an event to which Elizabeth and the royal family respond as protocol demands, which means that they remain in seclusion at the country estate in Balmoral and defer to Diana's family, who want a private funeral.
Meanwhile, the public is responding with an unprecedented outpouring of grief, and Blair is put in the awkward position of trying to convince Elizabeth that the royal family needs to make some sort of statement or public appearance, that the public wants their grief to be visible.
Mirren's Elizabeth simply doesn't comprehend the extent to which celebrity culture has taken over the world; she expects the public response to Diana's death to be proportionate to her official status as an ex-princess, and the depth of public grief perplexes her completely. She is incapable of grasping that Diana has become transcended royalty to achieve iconic status; in death, Diana has become Rebecca, leaving the queen to play the second Mrs. de Winter.
This may all sound rather somber, but The Queen provides a lot more fun than you'd expect. Michael Sheen plays Tony Blair in a manner reminiscent of Dudley Moore, constantly exasperated by the idiocy of the people around him. James Cromwell is an unexpected choice to play Prince Philip, who seems to be the most clueless member of the family, convinced that all William and Harry need is to go out and do some deer hunting. Alex Jennings nicely conveys the complex emotions of Prince Charles, balancing his obvious frustration and anger towards Diana with his concern for the wellbeing of their sons.
But Helen Mirren dominates the movie, with a beautifully understated performance. Her Elizabeth is a very smart woman, with a dry sense of humor, and a very precise sense of what her role in society is supposed to be. Watching her come to terms with the ways in which that role has changed provides one of the finest afternoons you'll have at the movies this year.