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Film review: Performances make ‘Queen’ stand out

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THE QUEEN — **** — Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell; rated PG-13 (profanity, violence, brief drugs).

Actress Helen Mirren's transformation into Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in "The Queen" is nothing short of remarkable.

In fact, it doesn't take long for you to forget that you're actually watching Mirren, who — with obvious makeup and hairdressing assistance — bears a striking resemblance to the British monarch.

But Mirren's performance as Elizabeth transcends mere mimicry. It's a surprisingly subtle and nuanced turn, the kind of acting that usually garners end-of-the-year awards talk. (Already, she seems to be an early Oscar front-runner.)

This fictional drama, based on some real-life events, looks at the queen's life during a very specific time period — the months between the 1997 election of Prime Minister Tony Blair and the death of Princess Diana.

In particular, filmmaker Stephen Frears examines how the balance of power shifted between the queen and Blair (played by Michael Sheen) during that time. Initially, he is shown deferring to the queen on most matters — that is, until the death of Diana.

While the country mourns, the queen and the other members of the Royal Family remain mum. They're simply following the expected royal protocol, but instead they come off as cold and uncaring, and public sympathy quickly turns against them.

In contast, the much-more-public Blair sees his popularity soar — as does his level of influence.

Frears ("The Grifters," "Dirty Pretty Things") and cinematographer Affonso Beato have shot much of the film in a no-frills manner that almost suggests docu-drama. And the script, courtesy of screenwriter Peter Morgan (TV's "The Jury"), is a lot more insightful about English royalty and politics than you might expect.

It's not dry either. This drama has a lot of wit and humor, and is pretty enthralling — and at less than 100 minutes, the film practically flies by.

Much of that also has to do with the performances. Mirren is the obvious standout of this ensemble, though Sheen delivers a career-best performance as Blair (it doesn't hurt that he looks so much like the now-embattled English leader — or that he played Blair once before, in a British TV movie three years ago, also directed by Frears).

Most of this film's emphasis is on Mirren and Sheen's characters, though there's some sterling supporting work as well from James Cromwell as Prince Philip, Alex Jennings ("The Four Feathers") as Prince Charles and Helen McCrory as Blair's opinionated wife.

"The Queen" is rated PG-13 for scattered profanity (including one usage of the so-called "R-rated" curse word), violence (some hunting and some implied violence), brief drug content (references to sleeping pills) and some brief animal gore. Running time: 97 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com