The Queen is set in the days immediately after the 1997 death of Princess Diana, a period that also marks the beginning of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party administration. Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) and Diana have been divorced for one year, but after the divorce, she has refused to retreat from the public eye and has given televised interviews blaming her divorce on Charles' infidelity with Camilla Bowles. The Queen plays an interchange from one of those interviews and also includes news footage of Diana from the time of her marriage until minutes before her death. To the members of the royal family, Diana is an embarrassing and aggravating nuisance. It would be cruel to say they are glad she has died, but they certainly won't miss her. And thus begins a crisis that ultimately imperils the entire monarchy.
The outpouring of anguish over Diana's death is unexpected and unprecedented. Ridiculously thinking that she can spare the feelings of Diana's sons, Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) herds the whole family out of London and off to their huge Balmoral estate in Scotland. Prince Philip (James Cromwell) thinks the boys will best deal with their grief if they can stalk and shoot some deer. Meanwhile, as thousands of British commoners and tourists from around the world begin to stack flowers of commemoration at the gates of Buckingham Palace, Elizabeth complains indignantly that Diana wasn't even a member of the royal family, was no longer an HRH (her royal highness). Because public sentiment is so strong, Prime Minister Blair (Michael Sheen) suggests a state funeral, but Elizabeth counters that such an idea is improper for a mere private citizen. This attitude of hauteur and disdain is a considerable miscalculation on Elizabeth's part. The longer she stays away from London and refuses to make a public gesture of mourning for her former daughter-in-law, the more she and the royal family get vilified in the press. Antimonarchists begin to call for the establishment of a republic.
The Queen depicts the Windsors as uniformly dislikable people. Prince Philip is a contemptuous and contemptible snob (and by insinuation, like his son, a philanderer, too). Prince Charles is a sycophant and a weakling, a grown man who schemes and pouts like a teenager. Even the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) is superior and sour. Queen Elizabeth herself is so emotionally stunted that her face seems frozen in an attitude of annoyance and disapproval. She has lived so privileged a life she seems largely oblivious to the normal rhythms of human existence.
Nonetheless, in the subtlest of ways, The Queen makes the case that the monarchy is an important emblem of the British nation. The people may not always get the queen they want, but they always want a queen (or king) to admire and exalt. The sovereign represents and embodies the ideal even when the human being who is the sovereign is less than ideal. Tony Blair understands this concept even when his dealings with the actual Queen Elizabeth are exasperating. And herein Americans might contemplate the problems in our own system of government in which our president is both head of state (like the British queen) and head of government (like the British prime minister). As long as the queen christens the ships, cuts the ribbons, keeps her opinions to herself and otherwise behaves, she can remain popular as the emblem she's handsomely endowed to be. But an elected president can soil the nation's regard for the state itself when his policies fail.
Elizabeth finally manages an appropriate response to Diana's death and in the process dampens the fires of antiroyalist complaints that the monarchy has outlived its usefulness. The film suggests that her address to the nation is a performance she'd prefer not to make, thus making the performance itself all the greater. The same might be said of Helen Mirren's magnificent embodiment of a queen she professes not to admire. In the opening scenes, Mirren sets the tone with astonishing perfection when she looks out of the film toward the audience with steely dignity, almost, but not quite, actually looking us in the eye.