counting down the best films of 2006: No. 6, ‘The Queen’

WHY IS THIS ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF THE YEAR?: Helen Mirren turns in one of the greatest performances in cinematic history as the reigning queen of England, Elizabeth II, taking a woman who not only doesn’t come across as warm and sympathetic, she doesn’t even seem human … and Mirren humanizes her, makes us understand, too, the whole not-warm-or-sympathetic thing.

DIDN’T WE FIGHT A WAR TO GET RID OF THESE PEOPLE? WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT THE BRITISH ROYAL FAMILY?: Because this is about so much more than just making Queenie look better than she ever has before. Like United 93, this is a film about a sudden, spectacular shift in a cultural paradigm, though where that other film was about how that change, wrought by a small group of people, struck everyone, this one is about how an entire society decided it was time for a change, and how that change struck the leaders of those people. The change is this: Royalty must be earned, the people of England decided, not conferred by birth. The people shifted their allegiance from hereditary leaders to actors, fashion designers, musicians … and members of the royal family — like Princess Diana — who actually did some good. It sounds like a small thing, and it sounds like something that should have happened decades ago, and yet this powerful film demonstrates how recent a shift this actually was.

YOU KEEP GOING ON ABOUT MICHAEL SHEEN AS TONY BLAIR …: Yup, I do. Mirren’s performance is, naturally, taking the lion’s share of the acclaim, but The Queen is full of breathtaking performances, by Sheen as the Prime Minister, by James Cromwell as Mr. Elizabeth, Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, and Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair. None of the very real, very recognizable, very parody-able people they portray becomes anything less than deeply, truly human.

[See the whole best-of list for 2006 here.]

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