MOVIE REVIEW- Royal strain: A great drama, 'Queen'

Poor Stephen Frears will never be knighted while Queen Elizabeth II lives, now that he's made The Queen, a subtly satirical mockudrama about the uneasiness of the head that wears the crown in the week following the death of Lady Diana Spencer.

Helen Mirren gives an amazing performance as England's reigning monarch. Her changes in expression are too slight to be measured in millimeters, yet she conveys all the feelings HRH feels but has been trained for a lifetime not to show.

The Queen begins in May 1997 with the election of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) as prime minister. A "modernizer" who wants to do away with a lot of pomp and circumstance, he's also "married to a woman [Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair] with anti-monarchist tendencies." Needless to say, the royals wouldn't have voted for him– if they could vote.

When Blair expresses nervousness about meeting the Queen, Cherie comforts him: "Remember, you're a man who's just been elected by the whole nation."

Despite the election, protocol demands the Queen "invite" the prime minister-elect to form a government, which her job is "to advise, guide and warn."

Blair has hardly settled in at Ten Downing Street when, on August 30, a car crash in Paris claims the life of the ex-wife of Prince Charles (Alex Jennings). As she's no longer a member of the royal family, although her two sons are, the Queen tries to blow it off as much as possible.

With his common touch, Blair more accurately assesses the mood of the people. An aide comes up with "the people?s princess," which becomes the catchphrase of the week after Blair uses it in a speech.

Summering at Balmoral Castle, the royals have only the newspapers and television to keep them aware of what's happening. Prince Philip (James Cromwell) takes his grandsons hunting to keep them too busy to grieve. With "no precedent for the funeral of an ex-HRH," the Queen at first resists the idea of a public affair, but finally realizes the people demand it.

Because there's no time to reinvent the wheel, the plans for the Queen Mother's (Sylvia Syms) funeral are adapted for the occasion, to the dismay of the still-kicking Queen Mum. Philip is aghast that the funeral guest list reads like "a chorus line of soap stars and homosexuals."

It takes days for Blair and the increasingly hostile press to persuade the royals to do the right things, including coming to London, making a public statement, and flying the flag at half-mast over Buckingham Palace.

While his wife refers to the royals as "a bunch of freeloading, emotionally retarded natters," Blair develops some sympathy for Her Majesty. His change in the course of this week may offer a clue to how, five years later, he will be G.W. Bush?s staunchest ally in invading Iraq; but that's a subject for a sequel, The Prime Minister, which I would be first in line to see.

Frears skillfully blends archival footage with his dramatizations, but at least 90 percent of Peter Morgan's screenplay rings so true it could all be documentary. What isn't a matter of historical record is probably a damn good guess.

Mirren portrays the Queen exactly as you would imagine her, except that she doesn't wear her crown to bed– or is that just my fantasy? The Queen makes you believe that the royals are just like you and me– only royaler.  It's a smashing good film.