Keeping Up Appearances 

Helen Mirren shines in one of the finest fall releases.

I've always had a loyalist's fondness for the English decision to have both a prime minister and a royal head of state. It seems to make a ton of sense: The prime minister takes care of the ugly business of politics, and the king or queen ensures a regal and dignified image to the rest of the world. Such a system might improve American politics. A split role definitely would have helped Bill Clinton at home during his presidency, and a split role would certainly boost George W. Bush's international popularity. Of course, this ain't England. So an examination of the uneasy truce between the English head of state and the English symbol of state is best left to director Stephen Frears, whose new film The Queen is one of the finest fall releases.

I'm pretty clueless about English royal history, so I'm not sure whether other American viewers will find the premise of the film flimsy. But the setup pays off handsomely. The Queen begins in the spring of 1997, when Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) ceremoniously receives newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). After an awkward conference -- Blair and his wife favor "modernization"; understandably, the royal family seems just fine where they are, thank you -- the narrative flashes forward to the death of Princess Diana on August 31st of that year. As the queen and her family resist Blair's image-savvy counsel, the royals gradually realize that their true enemy is the same ravenous media culture that devoured "the people's princess."

As Blair and the queen negotiate these unprecedented circumstances, Frears emphasizes the class differences between Elizabeth and the new PM. Blair conducts his business on a cordless phone in a study cluttered with paperback books and domestic detritus, while the queen receives the prime minister on a rotary phone surrounded by walls of hardbound books. Blair steps among childrens' toys and electric guitars as he negotiates with his wife, while the queen marches everywhere with purpose; even her obedient corgis trot along at a princely clip.

But Blair knows where the public heart is and that the great force that unifies queen, prime minister, and British citizenry is television. The royal family watches the news with increasing dismay, whereas Blair's moves to protect the family bolster his own public image. The presence of continuous television coverage and media scrutiny also leads to some fascinating rhymes within the film. One suggestive shot of Elizabeth alone in thought on the banks of a river rhymes with an earlier paparazzo photo of Diana contemplating the water beneath her from the diving board of an expensive yacht. And the opening sequence of the film, where the queen sits for an oil painting and muses about "the joy of being partial," is evoked again as she "sits" for her televised address to the British people about Diana's death.

Mirren is extraordinary throughout, and she controls the last third of the film; her palace-side mingling with Diana's mourners unearths unexpected feelings of heartbreak and compassion. But as she assures Blair in the film's final minutes that his moment of public excoriation will come, she emerges bitter yet triumphant. How apt for this neoclassical filmmaking gem to side with tradition over modernization as well.

The Queen

Opening Friday, November 3rd

Studio on the Square

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