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Living - February 2, 2007

Movie review: The Queen - 4 stars

Rating: PG-13 for language and adult situations. 1 hours, 43 minutes.

The most marvelous performance of the year meshes with one of the best films of 2006. Hallelujah.

Helen Mirren is perfection as Queen Elizabeth, not the be-wigged and Tudored version but the contemporary royal for whom a stiff upper lip is the order of the day.

That credo is put to the test when Princess Diana is killed in a dramatic car crash inside a dark tunnel in Paris while being pursued by paparazzi. Newly elected British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) is between a rock and a hard spot, anxious to spit-polish his image with a face of public concern yet clashing mightily with the tightly contained, ritual-bound world of his Queen.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, indeed. Blair and Her Royal Highness do emotional battle with all the diplomatic and procedural forces they can bring to bear while a staid Prince Philip (James Cromwell) staves off reality by stalking an elk that's furtively roaming his summer estate.

What ensues is a captivating fictional account of real events that transpired in August of 1997. What went on behind closed doors at Buckingham Palace and Balmoral Castle? The film depicts a ludicrous cocoon of privilege and wealth surrounding the delusional royals as they seek to uphold the cobwebbed cloisters of duty first, self second -- and prevent the British monarchy from permanent damage.

Mirren deserves every year-end award available for her spot-on portrayal of a reigning royal caught between the crosshairs, forced by a country in mourning to put protocol and personal judgment aside and break with long-standing tradition. Director Stephen Frears coaxes thespian gold from his gifted leading lady: the mannerisms, the walk and the unyielding conviction of a born-and-bred monarch.

Sheen's Cheshire-cat grin is the perfect foil for his burgeoning conflict and moral desire to placate a nation. Alex Jennings plays Prince Charles with all the vulnerability of a man inexorably tied to mom's apron strings.

Real news footage of Diana's dramatic departure -- the breaking bulletins, the funeral, etc. -- peppers the action and lends fresh perspective on a society that took the People's Princess to its heart.

Peter Morgan's incisive screenplay was drawn from dedicated research and extensive interviews with discreet palace sources, lending "The Queen" both historical and voyeuristic panache. Darkly observed and deeply affecting.

--Jeanne Aufmuth

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