Sometimes, everything just clicks. The script, the direction, the cinematography, the mise en scène and the acting, all perfect individually and even more perfect in the combination. Such is The Queen.

Helen Mirren gives the performance of her career - step back and think about that for a moment, won't you? - as Queen Elizabeth II in the first week of September, 1997, the week after the death of Princess Diana. As I imagine most people are aware by now, the film treats on the Queen's relationship with newly-appointed Prime Minister Tony Blair, and more generally the forces of modernisation in England (embodied by the PM) versus tradition and formality (the Queen).

The historic record speaks thus: in the days after Diana died, the Royal Family issued no statements, nor publicly recognised the event whatsoever. The British populace, and the world at large, became increasingly angry with their queen's silence, until she held a press conference on the day before Diana's funeral.

The usual understanding of this week, at least in America, is that Diana represented the forces of Good, the royals represented the forces of Evil, and the kingdom's outrage grew out of the fact that the lovely populist princess lost against the cold machinations of the tyrannic queen. Writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears postulate a different idea: the British people were very sad, and they needed their collective Mommy to comfort them.

Throughout the film, there's a tension between the love of tradition and the desire to emerge into the modern world, centered on the figure of Blair, who as performed by Michael Sheen shifts constantly between the desire to bend the United Kingdom into a republic, and his personal affection for and awe of the Queen. It is a theme laid out in the very first scene of the film: the newly-elected Prime Minister and his anti-royalist wife are introduced to the most significant monarch in Europe, and he is completely flummoxed. It's reminiscent of nothing so much as watching a child meeting Santa Claus for the first time. Cherie Blair will later snark that her husband is substituting the queen for his emotionally distant mother, and this is partly true, but it's also the case that she represents all of the marvelous pageantry and pomp that he first witnessed as a small child and never quite shook off. (In an interview prior to the film, Frears confessed as much, noting that Elizabeth II has been queen since his and Mirren's earliest memories).

As written and played, there are three facets to the queen: first, she is the head of state; then she is a mother and grandmother; lastly but most importantly, she is an old woman watching the world change faster than she can adapt to it. In all three ways, she is a product of Old Britain, the belief that stolidness is the greatest of all character traits, and to show emotion is to show weakness. Elizabeth was part of the last generation raised in this way, and The Queen is much less concerned with the specific facts of how the reigning monarch learns to live in a new world, focusing instead on the death of an old generation and the recognition that the natural progression of things is to a kinder and gentler and more expressive way of being. There is no judgment for or against the old way of doing things, only the fact that it is how things are now.

Mirren embodies this perfectly. It is easy and uninteresting to portray the British monarchy as starchy and haughty; instead her performance justifies Blair's mid-film description of it: "She's been brought up to believe that it's God's will she is who she is." Or rather, to take George Harrison's thoughts on a different British institution: "What's it like not to be a Beatle?" The arc of The Queen is in large part Elizabeth realizing that her position is not just "there," but that it requires constant negotiation with the needs of the people under her rule.

To make this leap, it is necessary that the queen of a no-longer-stoic people be brought in touch with her emotions, and this is the meat of the performance: the tiny moments where we see the queen let out a flicker of feeling from beneath her very perfect exterior. Mirren is a great actress, of course, and in the course of her career she has learned the ability to express great emotion with the slightest flicker of her eyes in an expressionless face. There is only one moment where the queen allows herself to be totally open, and that is when she is alone in the Scottish Highlands, watching a stag. The relationship between the stag and the British monarch is an ancient one, and therefore the imagery is more obvious than not; but the emotional core of the moment, the queen standing in abject awe before a magnificent animal, transcends cliché and becomes almost heartbreaking.

It is easy to credit Mirren for all that is brilliant about The Queen, but also unfair. The film is, after all, a generational conflict, not merely an internal psychological one, and it is carried off with impeccable skill. Stephen Frears is one of the great international filmmakers, but he is no auteur; he is a craftsman first and above all. And The Queen is his masterpiece: a restrained drama of short moments and tightly composed frames that only allows itself to expand and breathe as the characters do. The film adopts a fairly simple language of interior space versus exterior space representing exactly what you'd expect (hint: the queen's moments of greatest emotion and greatest humility occur in broad daylight outdoors), but just because something is non-imaginative does not mean it cannot be done extremely well. It's a stylistically conservative film about a strikingly progressive moment; but it is British, and we must give it some slack.

The other man without whom the film could not succeed is Michael Sheen. His mimicry of Blair is a significant counterpoint to Mirren looking exactly like herself, but he does not rest on that mimicry; he provides a fully-fleshed performance despite the absurd requirement of defining his character entirely in relationship to another performance. He represents all young people, young movement, young ideas that inevitably supersede the old ways, and he feels quite guilty about it; but no so guilty as to stop it from happening. We know what the characters do not, which is that Blair would start to hemorrhage popularity due to the Iraq War, and this informs Sheen's performance in a way; even before the queen warns him that someday, he too will find himself out of the people's love, we've already seen it on Sheen's face.

The film does not answer the question of whether it is good or bad that traditions and the modern world exist in conflict,but it doesn't really raise that question. It simply acknowledges that this is so. Pragmatism may not seem like the stuff of art, but here it is: it is a humble admission that we do not change the world, but rather that it changes us, and this clear-eyed anti-Romantic truth is a shocking and welcome aberration in the fantasy-based world of the movies. Sometimes being yourself isn't good enough, and you must evolve or die, even if you are the Head of the Commonwealth and Defender of the Faith.

10/10