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Royal flush 

Mirren offers a revealing portrait of The Queen

The Queen feels like a classic women's picture with a 21st-century media-age makeover. Clever and compassionate, Stephen Frears' sporting tragicomedy is a peek at the secret emotional life behind a strong woman's facade.

In this Anglophile's wet dream, Frears (Dirty Pretty Things, Mrs. Henderson Presents) assures us that behind the rigid helmet of Queen Elizabeth II's (Helen Mirren) silver pin curls, vinegary puss, scratchy sweaters and WASP reserve lies the heart and soul of a neglected wife ("affectionately" referred to as "Cabbage" by her husband), a scorned mummy and a misunderstood woman.

The Queen is the kind of rollickingly good-humored feast that Bette Davis would have gobbled up with a soup ladle. Frears proves himself marvelously up to the task of providing what great women's films have always done: showing the heart and soul of women's lives, big and small, even when those women are the battling mummies of Mother England. In this case, we have Her Majesty and her archrival for the British public's affection, Princess Diana.

The Queen opens with the windfall 1997 election of baby-faced prime minister Tony Blair (charm bucket Michael Sheen), who promises to drag the mothballed monarchy into the modern age.

But a baroque crisis immediately waylays Blair's triumphant ascent. The beautiful former princess Diana and her new boyfriend, Dodi Al Fayed, are killed during a paparazzi chase through Paris.

But Diana proves even more threatening to Her Royal Highness dead than she was alive.

All of Britain is plunged into a state of operatic mourning. Still nursing its own dislike of daughter-in-law Di's monarchy snubbing, the Royal Family stays in seclusion on its Scottish country estate. But their decision not to mourn publicly and openly becomes a PR snafu that alienates the British people and sends Blair into triage mode, trying to "save these people from themselves."

For Frears, this battle between the stoic royals and the effusive public marks a decisive sea change as the British people reject the emotionally withdrawn matriarch, Elizabeth II, for the glamorous and now martyred ex-princess.

Frears interweaves this stalemate between tradition and progress with actual news footage that captures the flashbulb-popping intensity: beginning with jet-setting Diana sunbathing on Dodi's yacht and culminating with thousands of Brits weeping outside the gates of Buckingham Palace after her death.

Frears somehow manages to balance the overwrought media blitzkrieg that accompanied Diana's death with a deeply human examination of how two very different women dealt with the spotlight. While Diana rejected the monarchy's oppressive protocol and constipated emotions, Frears' Queen serves with a sense of obligation and old-fashioned decorum that eventually wins over even Blair. He clearly falls under the sway of her quiet, wounded maternal mettle.

Helen Mirren is a marvel as the emotionally girdled queen commandeering an ancient Land Rover, Hermes scarf flapping in the breeze as she traverses her epic Balmoral estate, an entourage of corgis nipping at her ankles like sycophantic choir boys. Wearing a Pepto-Bismol-pink bathrobe and clutching her hot-water bottle to her chest when she gets the bad news about Diana, Mirren's Elizabeth is a granny with a steel backbone and a secretly tender heart who buckles when she thinks the public doesn't love her anymore and begins to identify with the noble, endangered stag evading hunters at Balmoral.

You don't have to be a queen to appreciate the queen's consummately maternal plight, of being scorned by the very people to whom she has devoted her life.

Ever attuned to the exquisite frill of lunacy decorating clannish aristocratic tradition, Frears manages to show both the perversity and pride of the royals, from their men in skirts and women in charge, to the grand tradition of the three-olive martini when times get tough. Instead of reaching for the Xanax or Dr. Phil, the royal curative of choice is a stiff upper lip, fresh country air and, if possible, a fresh kill on a hunting trip.

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