'The Queen': Tragicomedy of Post-Diana Royals

The new film The Queen looks at England's royal family following the death of Princess Diana. It's directed by Stephen Frears and features Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II. The movie opened the New York Film Festival on Friday. NPR critic Bob Mondello has a review.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Earlier this year, Helen Mirren played Britain's first Queen Elizabeth on television. And yesterday she opened the New York Film Festival playing Elizabeth II, the current Elizabeth, in the new movie The Queen. Today, The Queen opens its commercial run. Bob Mondello says Mirren is, as ever, regal.

BOB MONDELLO: Before the credits, Helen Mirren's Elizabeth II is sitting for a royal portrait, as if director Stephen Frears wanted to make sure we see how right she looks right at the top. She's chatting with the painter about the upcoming election and how she mustn't take sides, though you sense that she has a certain skepticism about this young Tony Blair fellow, who she's soon greeting as her new Prime Minister.

(Soundbite of movie "The Queen")

Ms. HELEN MIRREN (Actor): (As Queen Elizabeth II) Have we shown you how to start a nuclear war yet?

Mr. MICHAEL SHEEN (Actor): (As Prime Minister Tony Blair) No.

Ms. MIRREN: (As Elizabeth II) Oh, first thing we do, apparently. Then we take away your passport and spend the rest of the time sending you around the world.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Blair) You obviously know my job better than I do.

Mr. MIRREN: (As Elizabeth II) Yes. Well, you are my tenth prime minister, Mr. Blair. My first, of course, was Winston Churchill.

MONDELLO: How's that for putting a man in his place? Tradition has served Elizabeth well, but when tragedy strikes - the death of Diana, recently divorced from the Queen's son - her response is institutional, that of the House of Windsor, and Blair, as a political animal, senses that this a moment when traditional restraint may not be well received.

(Soundbite of movie "The Queen")

Ms. MIRREN: (As Elizabeth II) We've spoken with the Spencer family and it is their wish, it is their express wish that this shall be a private funeral.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Blair) Right. And the public, ma'am? The British people? You don't think a private funeral might be denying them a chance...

Ms. MIRREN: (As Elizabeth II) A chance to what? This is a family funeral, Mr. Blair, not a fairground attraction. I think the princess has already paid a high enough price for exposure to the press, don't you?

MONDELLO: So Blair makes the only governmental response, getting credit for sensitivity when he calls Diana the people's princess - after he's handed that phrase by his speech writer. The royals strike a frosty note, heading into seclusion at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. And flowers start piling up at the gates of Buckingham Palace, so many that Blair phones the Queen, urging a prompt return to London, and gets a sharp rebuke.

(Soundbite of movie "The Queen")

Ms. MIRREN: (As Elizabeth II) If you imagine that I'm going to drop everything and come down to London before I attend to my grandchildren, who've just lost their mother, then you're mistaken. I doubt there is anyone who knows the British people more than I do, Mr. Blair, nor who has a greater faith in their wisdom and judgment. And it is my belief that they will any moment reject this - this mood which is being stirred up by the press in favor of a period of restrained grief and sober, private mourning. That's the way we do things in this country, quietly, with dignity. That's what the rest of the world has always admired us for.

MONDELLO: Now, a lesser director might make all of this deadly earnest, but Frears treats it as what you might call a tragi-comedy of manners, perfectly serious but human foibles everywhere: the royals with their blinders on, Prince Charles dithering, the Queen Mum downing her gin, and Elizabeth's husband Phillip figuring what his grandsons really need after the death of their mother is to go shoot a stag. Meanwhile, Tony Blair, played slyly by Michael Sheen, is fending off the sentiments of his wife and staff, all of whom think the monarchy is a joke. And Helen Mirren's Elizabeth is recalibrating what it means to be a monarch in a modern age.

The film, while often very funny, makes all of this more persuasive than you might expect, establishing with subdued gestures and on occasion the slightest tilt of an eyebrow not just how royalty maintains its hold on the public, but also why Helen Mirren qualifies as acting royalty.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of music)

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