I'm convinced that Helen Mirren is capable of anything: She can quietly steal scenes in a Robert Altman ensemble piece (GOSFORD PARK), turn a recurring role into an icon (television's PRIME SUSPECT) and even survive an embarrassment like CALIGULA (I still can't wait to see her as an assassin in SHADOWBOXER). One year after her award-winning portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in an HBO miniseries, Mirren fearlessly takes on Elizabeth II in director Stephen Frears' intriguing film about Princess Diana's untimely death in 1997 and the strange days that followed.
Not really a biopic of Elizabeth (or Diana), Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan have instead crafted an intense, revealing examination of the British political climate of that time. Just months before the accident, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) became the country's first Labour Prime Minister in nearly two decades. When he first meets with Elizabeth at the film's onset, he's not entirely familiar with the precise customs required between the Queen and her subjects, exemplifying how the public's attitude towards the monarchy has shifted in the late 20th Century. As national mourning over Diana swells, the monarchy's refusal to even submit a public statement about the dead Princess they've disowned (she and Charles divorced only one year before) makes them appear remote and out of touch. At Blair's urging and guidance, it's up to Elizabeth to address the public, respond to their outcry against her and reassure them during this national crisis.
Frears deftly incorporates a lot of news footage into the film, giving it a chilling, unforced authenticity. It also provides an interesting, if sometimes jarring contrast to the delightfully wrought conversations between Blair and Elizabeth. The screenplay has that carefully composed eloquence and wit of a stage play which most of the actors nail perfectly—especially Sheen (a breakthrough performance that aims to restore the success and idealism of Blair at his first term), James Cromwell (wonderful as grumpy, snide Prince Philip) and Heather McCrory, a scene-stealer as Blair's smart, acid-tongued wife Cherie. Still, Mirren effortlessly towers above them all. It's a role of a lifetime that she inhabits with subtlety and complete control. Her Queen is not a doughy Monty Python stereotype but a woman capable of driving a Range Rover across rugged terrain. Elizabeth II was born into a lifelong "job" she didn't entirely want, and here she's believably baffled by her country's reaction to her non-action. She eventually emerges triumphant, but not unscathed, and Mirren makes her small but significant transformation a beautiful thing to witness.