Helen Mirren’s allure lies not in finding what’s regal in every woman she plays, but in finding what’s womanly in every royal. That, at any rate, is the most promising key I’m fiddling with these days while trying to unlock the secrets of Mirren’s power in The Queen, a superb re-creation of events in the week following the death of Princess Diana in 1997. I realize my notion is simply that of just another Mirrenite who has been smitten and awed by the actress in equal measure for decades, from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover to The Madness of King George through all six seasons of Prime Suspect to date, as millions were dazzled by Diana herself. But the insight may help to explain why this engrossing and unexpectedly penetrating drama, with its truly fresh perspective on how response to the news of one dead princess recalibrated the relationship between the British monarchy and the masses, is more than just another pop entry in history’s ongoing Dianathon.
With prickly dignity of bearing, precision of aristocratic diction, and the gestures of one born and bred to command even in domestic activities as intimate as dialing a phone, walking a dog, or reading the morning newspapers over breakfast, Mirren conjures Elizabeth as an identifiable flesh-and-blood wife, mother, grandmother, and woman with a job to do. She also conveys the importance — and the majesty, unaffected by political fashion — of the institutional Elizabeth II of the House of Windsor, Head of the Commonwealth and Defender of the Faith, a living embodiment of her empire’s proud history. In a bathrobe or a crown, watching the telly or receiving curtsies, Mirren’s self-possession is a grace that appears at once willed and innate. As she did earlier in the year playing Elizabeth I on HBO, the actor excels at projecting the imperial, not the imperious.
And if that doesn’t do enough to explain the thrall of The Queen, there’s always the ingenuity of this particular Diana angle itself to commend the season’s most unlikely grand entertainment — an art-house production that might even appeal to big Saturday-night megaplex crowds. Sidestepping a whole lot of media hyperventilation with a discretion that does not prevent evenhandedness, director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan (who also co-wrote The Last King of Scotland) nevertheless convey important sociological information. They explore how the sensational death of a flashy divorcée (smashed in a car in Paris with her Egyptian lover) was felt so deeply by a populace who identified with the glamorous People’s Princess. They question Elizabeth and her quite clueless husband, Philip (marvelous James Cromwell), for remaining so unresponsive to the need their subjects had for an official sign of Windsor bereavement. (The Queen suggests that only Prince Charles seemed to get it, and he was, in small ways and big, in no position to overrule his mother.) They admire the way Tony Blair (Kingdom of Heaven’s Michael Sheen, avoiding caricature), then a youthful, progressive prime minister brand-new to the office, navigated between the growing discontent of the people, the blood scent picked up by the media, and the elaborate delicacies of etiquette when dealing with the labyrinth of palace functionaries.
The Queen pays serious attention to how an ancient monarchy operates in a modern country briskly uninterested in (and even disapproving of) day-to-day Windsor life, and how, really, it took the People’s Grief to breach walls of mutual disregard. And Frears, who probed class ugliness in melting-pot England with far less delicacy three years ago in Dirty Pretty Things, shows extraordinary discernment and restraint in his choice of settings: Elizabeth (already on the throne for 45 years) receiving Blair and his antimonarchist wife, Cherie; Elizabeth in her family rooms eating supper on a tray with her wily old mother (Sylvia Syms); Elizabeth and Philip touring the mountain of flowers piled outside their palace, chatting with selected onlookers in a ritual indistinguishable from a stage performance.
Which brings me back to Mirren, bewigged in her character’s impregnable Hairspray ‘do, or reading a televised message to her people through matronly eyeglasses. It takes daily effort to keep that hair and those specs going year after year, prime minister after prime minister. It takes a sense of duty, even when a woman wants to stay in a bathrobe and weep. Mirren shows us what it’s like to want to weep — and then, by the grace of God, to rule. She rules.