Helen Mirren speaks with flawless, imperious diction throughout The Queen, but it's worth noting how much acting she does between lines. As Queen Elizabeth II, she reaches several turning points during the course of the film, most of them taking place when she's alone and silent, or as another character natters on about protocol, propriety, and what tradition states obviously must be done. Meanwhile, Mirren has already accepted that changing times have sent "what must be done" out the window.
An account of life inside the royal family during the week following Princess Diana's 1997 death in Paris, the film is bookended by official meetings between Mirren's Elizabeth and then-newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). In the first meeting, Sheen undergoes the formality of being asked to form a government in Mirren's name. In the second, they mend their relationship after the muted power-struggle that forms the heart of the film. Between the two, director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan capture an era fading, if not quite disappearing, into the past.
Their tone is alternately affectionate and toothsome. Combining facts from the public record with dramatic speculation, Frears and Morgan portray the royals as simultaneously an ordinary family and anything but. The scenes of Mirren driving an SUV—with considerable brio—across the Scottish countryside, or gathering with her family around the television to catch the news, don't quite jibe with the queen's implacable public image. But then the subject turns to the proper number of days to wait after the death to begin hunting, or most tellingly, Mirren's bafflement that the country could be so upset over someone who wasn't even a royal any more.
The warts-and-all approach ultimately makes its subject seem more human, and lets the film focus on the much larger subject of how times change. The Queen slowly shifts into a low-key tug-of-war between Mirren and Sheen's Blair, then riding a wave of Cool Britannia optimism. Taking the public temperature, he draws Mirren, however reluctantly, into a media-driven end of the century in which the royal family might have more currency than the average celebrity, but it would be best not to overestimate by how much. Frears plays out their struggle with dry wit, dark humor, and surprising compassion, in the end turning it into a moving state-of-the-nation report. Mirren begins the film having her portrait painted, looking every inch the monarch and proud to play the part. By the end, she's let the pressure of one week, and maybe a lifetime, show in her eyes.