There is more than a superficial resemblance between Helen Mirren’s performance in The Queen and Meryl Streep’s performance in The Devil Wears Prada . Both actresses play imperious women in difficult jobs whose glare can strip the paint off a wall. But though Streep is almost certain to win a supporting Oscar for her role, Mirren – who will probably be the sixth actress directed by Stephen Frears to be nominated and lose — is, in her subtlety and generosity, even more of a delight to watch.
The Queen takes place in week following the death of Princess Diana. To Queen Elizabeth II, this is a private affair, not a matter of state. As she sees it, Diana, divorced from Charles and the royal family, is no longer a political figure, and therefore unworthy of even a public statement – certainly not a gaudy public funeral. If there is an element of private rancor in her position — after all, during her life, Diana created nothing but problems for the Establishment – the Queen would never admit it.
When the headlines report a public outcry, the Queen is in denial: "The British people will come to their senses, and return to quiet, dignified mourning," she says. Fat chance. Prime Minister Tony Blair, elected by a landslide, has the correct temperature of the country. Michael Sheen expertly plays the tricky role of a man new to his job and trying to find his footing, star struck by the Queen, and going half mad trying to explain to her that Royals who are that badly out of touch with the people are usually beheaded.
It’s not that Queen Elizabeth has been living on her 40,000 acres as a $40 million-a-year parasite, though some would see it that way. It’s that her values were forged by World War II, and she took an oath before God to do her duty until death. It’s no surprise that she finds the celebrity culture that attended Diana, culminating in the spectacle of Elton John singing her Marilyn Monroe’s song, to be mystifying and shameful. She fails to see that Diana was more than a reckless person; she was, and is, a symbol.
In addition to being a political procedural and a comedy of manners, The Queen is a nuanced character study. Whether it was Mirren’s, director Stephen Frears’s, or writer Peter Morgan’s idea to play Queen Elizabeth II as a sass is anyone’s guess; but it’s Mirren’s sex appeal that makes it possible. It’s hard to believe that in the same year, the same woman also played the hatchet-like Jane Tennison in TV’s Prime Suspect VII . It takes a while to warm up to her, but the closer we get to Queen Elizabeth, the more we like her; public dignity is in short supply these days. By the end, when we get our answer to the question, "Will she change?", another question still lingers: "Should she?"
This and other theater and music reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast by visiting wfiu.org. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.