One danger with a film that tracks Elizabeth II's response to Lady Diana's 1997 death is that the British queen might appear icy and indifferent-a well-worn idea.
What The Queen (rated PG-13 for brief, strong language) does is much more intriguing. The movie probes the monarch's griefs and motivations, and manages sympathy for both Elizabeth and Diana, resulting in a satisfyingly textured production.
The film documents the battle between Prime Minister Tony Blair and the royal family over how to handle Diana's death. The queen (Helen Mirren) considers it a private, family matter; Blair (Michael Sheen) argues the well-loved Diana deserves a public funeral-and eventually wins as the press and British public turn against the royals.
Helen Mirren's portrayal is earning well-deserved Oscar buzz: She masters the details, from the queen's slightly raised eyebrows and squeaky public speaking voice down to her thick gait. More movingly, she captures the inner struggle of a queen who has better command of her corgis than an overemotional British public she no longer understands.
From the beginning, the film offers funny insights into the royal family. The queen mother (Sylvia Syms) complains, "No one ever tells me anything." An appalled Prince Philip (James Cromwell) balks at the public's grief over Diana: "Sleeping in the streets and pulling out their hair for someone they never knew. And they call us mad!" We also glimpse intra-family tensions when a squirrely Charles, sensing the public mood, quietly sidles to Blair's side against his mother.
Ultimately, the film is a profile of Britain's psyche, showing a schism between old-fashioned British restraint and the new tabloid culture.