Grief makes human beings behave in the most unpredictable ways. But with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the outpouring of public grief was unlike anything most of us had ever seen.

The extraordinary public expression of distress caught most off guard but, as new film The Queen explores, nobody more than the princess’s former mother-in-law, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

This outstanding film by director Stephen Frears is an intense study of that week, starting with Diana’s death in the car crash in Paris through to her very public funeral in London seven days later.

It was a week that shook the monarchy to its core as the queen found herself out of touch with the public mood. She believed the death was a private matter that had little to do with her family because Diana was no longer married to Charles, and this proved to be one of the greatest misjudgements of her reign.

The queen found herself cast as the villain in the tale as she refused to allow displays of public grief from her family, insisting royal protocol must be followed. Her newly elected prime minister Tony Blair, however, set about trying to save the royal family from the escalating damage.

As the queen, Helen Mirren portrays a complex woman conflicted during the increasingly complicated situation.

Mirren is magnificent in every detail of her performance, portraying the sovereign’s grandeur as comfortably as her humour and quick wit. She conveys her vulnerability as she ponders whether she has lost touch with what her people want.

While Mirren has deservedly won accolades and emerged as the favourite to take out next year’s Best Actress Oscar, Michael Sheen as Tony Blair is just as effective in his portrayal of a prime minister attempting to lead his queen and country in a time of crisis.

Also impressive are Helen McCrory as the outspoken Cherie Blair and James Cromwell as Prince Philip. It’s only Alex Jennings, as the weak-willed Prince Charles, who comes off as a caricature in this collection of finely tuned character studies.

One reason the movie works so effectively is it takes larger than life characters and convincingly portrays them as real people, sitting up in bed watching late-night TV news or eating fish fingers at the kitchen table.

It is a testament to the actors, Frears’s direction and the excellence of the script that all elements combine to make the film so powerful.

The Queen opens on 26 December.

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