In the history of political poker, the week between the shocking death of Princess Diana and her funeral might be the only time that a jack trumped a queen. At stake was the monarchy itself.
So suggests "The Queen," Stephen Frears' piercingly funny and unexpectedly moving account of that odd couple, Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and HRH Elizabeth II (majestic Helen Mirren) and their back-channels affair.
After Di's fatal car accident in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997, the newly-elected PM takes the temperature of his grieving nation, diagnoses that it needs a Mourner-in-chief and eulogizes the deceased as the "people's princess." Relying on her own counsel, the Queen holds that whether or not Diana was a royal pain, divorce deprived her of royal status. Protocol dictates a private funeral.
How the modernizing PM persuades the traditionalist HRH to change the course of the ship of state — and how she deepens his appreciation for its captain — is the core of this lightning-paced entertainment that unfolds at the crossroads of gossip and history.
It is a challenge to make a comedy about a tragedy, yet Frears ("High Fidelity") rises to the occasion, with the help of Peter Morgan's witty script. Co-writer of "The Last King of Scotland," Morgan proceeds from Aldous Huxley's astute observation that, "We participate in tragedy; in comedy we only look."
How much of the film is true? I agree with the British journalist who observed that Morgan has created his own genre, the "some of what you are about to see is true" story. Essentially he does what Shakespeare did in his plays: Imagine himself in the shoes and shadows of historic figures.
Compassionate as it is critical, satirical as it is serious, "The Queen" is less a docudrama than a political romantic comedy. Its concern is how the Labor leader and the wary wife of Windsor change each other.
Brilliant as Morgan's script is, it is Helen Mirren's diamond-hard performance that is the jewel of "The Queen's" crown. Bewigged and padded to resemble the dowager of dowdy chic, Mirren seems inexpressive as a statue. Which, of course, makes the exasperated flutter of an eyelash suggest contempt, the tense scrunch of a pursed lip extreme rage.
About Mirren's Oscar prospects, let's just say that protocol demands that Meryl Streep's queen of mean in "The Devil Wears Prada" curtsey to Mirren's "Queen."