The crisis is the 1997 death of Princess Diana, ex-wife of Prince Charles, like a tabloid crowbar popping the lid off royal insulation.Stephen Frears' film, compulsively too sedate to be a satire, yet full of small, needling subversions, is about insulation as a way of life - a royal preserve more enclosed than Elizabeth's beloved hunting park at Balmoral.
It is to Balmoral that she retreats with squirmy, fumbling Charles (Alex Jennings), with his and Diana's two sons (barely seen) and the nearly moribund Queen Mum (Sylvia Sims). And there is Prince Philip (James Cromwell), a man's man, at times a dolt's dolt, whose idea of grief therapy is to take the boys out to shoot wild game and who says "celebrities" as if tasting cyanide.
Mirren, who once played Elizabeth I, looks and talks enough like II to make us feel that a waxwork has sprung to life. Well, partial and very royal life. Prim dignity harnesses her every move, though unspoken thoughts often dance in her eyes.
Poor Liz, such a turtled trouper. She only cries a bit (maybe not for Diana) when alone, moved by a great stag at Balmoral who stirs her even more than her dear Corgis. Ideally, she should reign over "Dr. Dolittle."
Frears uses clips of Diana mania, before and after her death. Diana's tiara smile and paparrazzi'd peachiness make Elizabeth look old, a frump almost embalmed by protocol. But the movie is more sympathetic than sneering, even if the letters JRK on her Range Rover plate seem an oblique critique.
It takes Blair, played by the nearly too boyish Sheen (no relation of Martin or Charlie, he previously played the Labour PM on television), to make Her Majesty quicken to the times. "Duty, not self" must be bent in a new way. Blair, in turn, comes to see that the queen is not just a starched figurehead, and has steely merits unseen by media.
Britishly insular, mildly skeptical of the Diana cult - the faces of her stricken admirers look smugly smitten - and not fawning over the royals, "The Queen" is basically a postmortem about a crisis of national fever recalled in bemusement.
Funny? At times, but mainly sad, seasoned and alive to the test of a summer when a canny new PM met history through two remarkable women.
A Miramax Films release. Director: Stephen Frears. Writer: Peter Morgan. Cast: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, Sylvia Syms, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. Rated PG-13. 3 stars.