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HM the Q

    Like many Americans, you may think that monarchies are miserable anachronisms, and not give tuppence about the shenanigans that the Windsors get up to, but you should still go see “The Queen”, and the reason you should see it is to witness one of the most astonishing performances by any actress, ever.
    Since the movie was released last year, you may know by now that it’s about the crisis in the Royal Family when news of Princess Diana’s death reached Balmoral. If you’re one of those anti-royalists you may well enjoy the sight of the House of Windsor in horrified disarray, convincing themselves that staying incommunicado is the only dignified way to react. We all know how well THAT went down with the British populace, and a lot of the screen time is given to the battle of wills between the Queen and her new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who’s convinced that a public statement from Her Majesty is the only way to keep the monarchy from crumbling.
    There are lots of really good things about this movie, including the way archival footage of the real events is woven into the fictional account, but you realize pretty soon that everything just forms a gilt frame around Helen Mirren’s performance. If you were a fan of “Prime Suspect” on PBS you know her as an actress of amazing range and uncanny intensity; if you saw her in “Calendar Girls” you know she also has a great flair for comedy. In “The Queen” she puts all those talents to use in a tour de force that often has you forgetting that you’re not watching a documentary, to the point that you feel it’s practically indecent to watch her in her fuzzy pink housecoat. (In fact, Peter Morgan’s screenplay sometimes strays from plausible speculation into wild surmise, but you won’t find me complaining.)
    At the opening credits, Her Majesty is having yet another royal portrait painted. You’re seeing her in three-quarter profile when, in a totally unexpected move, she turns to the camera and looks directly at YOU. It’s a stare of such authority that I nearly dove under my seat. Suddenly you understand that there is the steel of command inside the mousy lady with terrible taste in hats, and her chastisements of Tony Blair easily outdo Lady Bracknell in her most acid mood.
    There used to be an unwritten rule that living monarchs were not portrayed on stage or screen. That rule has been discarded with a vengeance, and I’m glad that Her Majesty made Helen Mirren a Dame of the British Empire before this movie was filmed, because she sure as heck wouldn’t have done it afterwards.
    I’ll leave you with a true anecdote:
    On the day of Diana’s accident, a journalist in California had been on the road in the Central Valley all day and hadn’t heard the news. When he stopped into a diner for lunch, everyone was crowded around the television, and he asked what was going on.
    “Oh, it’s awful,” said a waitress. “Princess Di was in a terrible car crash.”
    “Yeah,” added the cook. “she was bein’ chased by a whole buncha them Pavarottis.”
    Now THERE is a truly horrifying thought.