"The Queen," a fictionalized account of how the British Royal family reacted to Princess Diana's tragically real car crash and death, sounds like a bad idea for a film.

The Queen of England, Elizabeth II, having survived royal scandal after royal scandal, including her son Charles' recent divorce from the ever-popular Lady Di, must decide what to do when her former daughter-in-law, a woman she cannot stand, is suddenly dead.

Should she acknowledge Diana's departure or take the British route and stay mum? Should she give Diana a state funeral or have Diana mourned in a private family ceremony? Should she use the Royal jet to send Charles to France, the scene of the accident? Should she lower the flag? Should she address the grieving nation or would that be too undignified? Should she show her not-so-mournful face to the crowds who have come to pay their last respects or should she take the dogs out on a stag hunt?

These questions may seem like no-brainers to you or any other reasonable person, but to an appearances-driven monarch, they are rather difficult, if not entirely baffling riddles. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth miscalculates at nearly every conceivable juncture, angering the nation if not the entire world by her inability to set aside the past, take off her crown for a moment, and give Diana the sort of respect she deserves but never before received.

An excellent drama unfolds, one that is essentially about a dysfunctional family in crisis mode. We watch in fascination and disbelief as these emotionally unapproachable figureheads grapple with calamity, family, history, and relationships in their own particularly creepy way. The end-result is miraculously magical, one of the best films of 2006, highly recommended viewing. A lot of the credit should go to director Stephen Frears ("Dangerous Liaisons") and writer Peter Morgan. And of course nobody should overlook two of the best acting performances of the year: Helen Mirren as the Queen and Michael Sheen as British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"The Queen" stands as a memoir of those strange days -- when Diana was suddenly dead, when the entire world began to mourn her loss and the attendant loss of fairy tale dreams and royal happy endings, when the outpouring of affection rivaled and likely surpassed that of John Lennon, Princess Grace, even Elvis.

"The Queen" is not just about the Queen, however. It is also about Prime Minister Tony Blair. And so, all of the Queen's miscalculations, her misjudgments, her failures, shortcomings, and mild triumphs, are compared and contrasted to those of Blair, who seems to make all the right moves in the midst of the tragedy, not unlike Rudy Giuliani's decisions after the Sept. 11 tragedy.

Thus, "The Queen" is a kind of chess match, with each of the Queen's moves being studied and countered by Blair, the public's proxy, who is soon on the verge of a checkmate. Blair, however, would have it otherwise. Rather than chess, he is playing a practice game of ping-pong, where both sides are simply trying to help each other improve. Be that as it may, all such games must finally come to an end. Queen Elizabeth has been here before, seven times in fact; Blair has not. Herein lies her advantage, the knowledge that this too shall pass, that Blair's honeymoon with the media will one day end, that he will someday be the one who is on the defensive.

Rating: A

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