You have been a scourge to her enemies, you have
been a rod to her friends; you have not indeed loved
the common people.
You should account me the more virtuous that I have
not been common in my love.
--Shakespeare, Coriolanus II:3
The Queen briskly illustrates the contrasting reactions of recently elected Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) to Princess Diana's 31 August 1997 death in a car crash in Paris. The Queen sees it as a private family matter and, since she loathed Diana anyway, does not feel called upon to interrupt the family's vacation residence at Balmoral Castle, make a public statement, or, contrary to custom, fly a flag at half-mast over Buckingham Palace. Elizabeth's first concern is for Diana's boys, who are, of course, her grandsons as well as potential successors to the throne.
Elizabeth does not grasp the significance of Diana's popularity with "her" subjects. In fact, the Princess's mediagenic quality is one of the reasons Elizabeth disliked her, because she deemed it inappropriate, infra dignitatem for an "HRH." Elizabeth believes that the English public in 1997 still values what they valued during World War II: the suppression of emotion in the performance of duty.
Tony Blair, by contrast, emphatically gets that Diana's popularity alone demands a response from the royals, and the movie is a touchy negotiation, mostly by telephone, between allegorical figures of the new way and the old. Sheen and Mirren are admirable performers, but the movie stops short of full-blown naturalism, irony, or romance, so there's no basis for them to exceed what screenwriter Peter Morgan has written.
The Queen takes what we've all heard about the interaction of the parliamentarian and his sovereign and stages it with tasteful directness, but I didn't come away feeling I had been granted any greater access than mere presence at these behind-the-scenes vignettes. The movie does not elaborate the characters, and Mirren thus doesn't get the opportunity to do with Elizabeth II what Bette Davis and Glenda Jackson did with Elizabeth I, i.e., give individual range and volume to the historical figure. (Nor did Mirren join their ranks in the recent TV movie Elizabeth I, which dramatized historical events as if they were episodes in a soap opera, and featured generally Elizabethan-sounding dialogue that helplessly made the show more, rather than less, camp.) Mirren's Elizabeth II isn't a star performance, it's a star disappearing act, the movie equivalent of a Cindy Sherman photo (minus the anti-glamorizing sense of estrangement, of course).