The Queen, Stephen Frears’s inoffensive candid snapshot of the British royal family in the days following the death of Princess Diana, has the kind of screenplay (by Peter Morgan) that grasps onto one word and groups the entire movie around its strategic repetition. The word is “modernize,” first used in conjunction with the summer of ’97 election of Tony Blair and Labour, and then repeated to clarify the stakes of the royal family’s public silence amidst cries for them to join in the collective clustergrief in the wake of Diana’s death a few months later. (The possibility that the public’s wailing was inspired by the same celeb-identification that led indirectly to her death, and that the stiff upper lip might have been a valuable corrective, is raised and dismissed: how do you know what a movie wants you to think? Just listen to the lines given to the least sympathetic character — in this case, James Cromwell’s crusty Prince Philip — and counterpoint accordingly. Or, failing that, listen to Frears save his most somber soundtrack maneuvers for the liberally integrated archival footage of the mountains of flowers outside Buckingham Palace.) Leading the way for the “modernization” is the casual, sympathetic Blair (Michael Sheen), his tendency to appease everyone treated in this case as a virtue (though he does get one half-decent Gordon Brown kiss-off). The film follows his lead, parceling out its irreverent or un-P.C. lines to the supporting cast, and gently prodding its out-of-touch, protocol-bound monarch towards a funeral sanctified equally by Verdi and the presence of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
Advance word on The Queen has been largely a matter of laurels heaped on Helen Mirren’s performance as the QEII, which is difficult to understand. She’s a fine actress, but the degree of difficulty here is minimal: clip off your syllables just so, adjust for tartness and/or quaver as necessary, and hey presto!, a member of the British royal family. Or any Hollywood role ever dialed in by a classically trained grande dame of the British theater. (Just give her the Oscar now.) Still, it’s something to hold on to in a movie that’s otherwise as superfluous as the British monarchy itself. Opens September 30