Sitting in the living room at Balmoral, knitting and nattering in their plain wool sweaters, caring more for their pets than for their children, the royal family of this film seems a parody of the pettiness and insularity of the English middle class; they might be the Monty Python gang in drab drag. Yet despite their sternest efforts to keep up the moat bridge, Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) and her blinkered clan are about to learn how little they understood the appeal of the woman who, they think, betrayed them.
The Queen, written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears, is the fact-based chronicle of the week Diana died. At first, the royals choose to do nothing, issue no statement, betray no emotions--which, toward Diana, are pretty rancorous. Only when Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), swept into 10 Downing Street in a landslide, gently insists that a consoling word or two might be in order does the Queen realize with a shock that she is not the most beloved woman in Britain.
Some of the royal portraits are etched in acid (James Cromwell's bullying, befuddled Philip), some daubed with sympathy (Alex Jennings' bereaved Charles). And after about an hour of wickedly acute satire, the movie shifts its focus to find the pathos behind Elizabeth's stern gaze. As incarnated by Mirren, that least sentimental of great actresses, the Queen might be any aging executive, devastated by the insight that her reign has been endured but not embraced. Mirren, who won an Emmy playing Elizabeth I for HBO, may deserve an Oscar for this ripe appraisal of Elizabeth II.