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‘The Queen’ is dramatic and captivating

Along with Diana’s own family, her countrymen and people worldwide, members of the royal family were saddened and in shock when she met a tragic end. Through a fairy tale wedding and a sham of a marriage - which she rose above and found her own identity - Diana stood out as a noble survivor.

People loved her, and the British reacted in ways totally unexpected when she died. They wouldn’t stop mourning. Day after day they showed up at the Windsor and Buckingham palaces, bringing tons of flowers and leaving notes.

Ironically, Prime Minister Tony Blair has just taken office only a day before Diana’s death in “The Queen.” At first, he’s at odds about how to handle the matter with Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren). As the public presence grows and patience in waiting for a response from the royal monarch diminishes, Blair releases a statement calling Diana “The People’s Princess.”

The queen, already disapproving of Blair and finding his action nervy, remains emotionless and distant from the people. She maintains the royal family must adhere to protocol at all times while presenting a strong front for Diana’s sons. She insists that her husband, Prince Philip (James Cromwell), should keep the boys distracted by taking them deer hunting near their retreat home at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

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Mirren’s name is already topping the critics’ Oscar consideration list for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, who’s like an ice sculpture still in the freezer. She won’t listen to Philip, ignores son Prince Charles’ (Alex Jennings) requests and won’t read the tabloids. In these dramatic sequences, Mirren taps into the queen’s solitude and her determination to retain the protocol of her kingdom’s sovereignty.

Blair continues to push the queen to do something: make a statement to the people, release a statement to the press, allow the flag to be lowered as the public is demanding.

“Never,” she commands, and explains it’s never lowered even for royal deaths.

While she has no knack or interest in meeting the public’s demands, the queen shows she’s not timid in her own world. She drives her own four-wheel-drive over the country terrain and even attempts to fix the vehicle once when it breaks down. Finally, after weeks go by and people still fill the streets outside Buckingham, the queen gives in and takes to the street to walk among the flowers and nod at her subjects.

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Mirren (“Calendar Girls”) excels again here when allowing her character to thaw as she reflects the queen’s recognition of her imprecise behavior. Watching her read note after note in the flowers and comment, “They hate us,” we can’t help feeling some sympathy for her situation.

This peek behind the walls of the royal family is more fascinating than one imagines and clearly was intriguing to Stephen Frears (“Mrs. Henderson Presents,” “Dirty Pretty Things”) as well.

“The whole situation is quite ludicrous, so it’s easy to make the royal family seem even more ridiculous than they are,” he said. “That’s what goes on all the time in England. There’s a constant mockery. But we focused on their human qualities in this crisis and as people denied a real life in a way.”

In the supporting cast, Sylvia Syms offers a good performance as the queen mother. Prince Charles and Prince Phillip rarely show up in film, but Michael Sheen is very commendable as Tony Blair, who reveals his frustration again and again at trying to balance the media, the queen and his own family, who is having difficulty reacting to Blair becoming a puppet.

Morgan drafted his screenplay from research, exclusive interviews and discreet sources for his material. There are many instances where filmmaker Frears explores the idea that perhaps the royal monarchy has seen its day.

“The queen recently had her 80th birthday,” he said, “and it seems from a lot of the articles written that many people agree that, while the institution is idiotic and inappropriate, the woman is extraordinary.”

“The Queen” is playing at Landmark La Jolla Village Cinema.