"(PG-13) Four stars 

In August of 1997, Princess Diana died in a Paris car crash and a large portion of the world went into mourning. Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren),  in seclusion with her family in her summer retreat of Balmoral in Scotland, made no public statement on what she believed was “a private matter,” setting off an uproar with grieving British citizens offended by her silence.

Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) understood why people were upset and what the Queen needed to do about it. Ah, but how does one approach such a sensitive subject with such an intimidating figure?

Versatile Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, The Grifters) directs The Queen, a fascinating, nuanced examination of Britain’s royal family, as well as a captivating glimpse at the interactions between the Queen and Blair during the week following Princess Di’s death. You need not be interested in the royal family or British politics to enjoy the movie – it stands up quite well as a character study of some very unusual characters.

In movies and TV shows, the British monarchy is usually the punchline of jokes about pompousness and stuffy behavior. Not here, though. We see pompousness and stuffy behavior, but in context. Quietly, thoughtfully, Frears, working from a screenplay by Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland), presents the royal family as three-dimensional human beings. It would be sheer torture living with these people, but it’s fascinating to visit them.

Of course the whole thing is just gossip, but it never feels that way, thanks to the filmmakers and a mostly great cast (when I say “mostly,” I’m talking about you, James Cromwell). Michael Sheen is notable as Tony Blair, portraying the Prime Minister as a slick, media savvy modern politician with good intentions and a healthy ego. Best of all is Helen Mirren, who creates a Queen Elizabeth who is often infuriating and oddly endearing. Look for her name to pop up when awards season arrives. The Queen may turn up on a lot of “Best of 2006” lists as well.

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