Stephen Frears’ new film The Queen begins just before that catastrophic car crash, seemingly provoked by pursuing paparazzi, took the lives of Diana, Princess of Wales, and her boyfriend, the rich playboy Dodi Fayed. With an efficient and effective montage of news clips, Frears reminds us (as if we could forget) just how popular Diana had become, and why.

Unlike Queen Elizabeth, who stuck to the typical rituals of her tradition, Diana was an adventurous do-gooder. She was as big as Paris Hilton, and much more charitable and generous. She fought for AIDS awareness. She spoke up when her people wanted to hear from her. The world was charmed by the way her wedding to Prince Charles resembled a fairy tale. And people were overjoyed to see a “commoner” like themselves, a schoolteacher, a local beauty, enter into such glory with pomp and extravagance. The formality of it all was thrilling.

But eventually, she became symbolic of something else. When the extramarital affair of her husband Charles became public, and all of that symbolic expression was proven empty and corrupt, Charles showed no signs of repentance or remorse. And thus Diana came to represent another aspect of being “ordinary” in Britain — the establishment had made a show of their honor and devotion to her, and then betrayed her.

And so she set out looking for love, as her marriage was “a bit crowded.” With her went the hearts of masses of Brits, looking for some other symbolic fulfillment in globe-hopping affairs. Diana became vigorously “modern.”

She became, as Tony Blair named her in a speech, “the People’s Princess.” And by implication, the rest of the royals were no longer of the people, but of a bygone era.

When she died after a car crash in Paris in 1997, people from around the world who had been enthralled by Diana’s dramatic story went into a state of shock. Then came the outpouring of grief in expressions of music, poetry, and, yes… flowers.

So many flowers were brought to the gates of Kensington Palace that they looked like a flood of grief pouring up the avenue.

And they symbolized more than the broken hearts of Diana’s countless fans. The waves of that flood surged against the gates like some kind of apocalyptic judgment against the Royal Family, a rising tide threatening to swamp and even submerge the monarchy for good.

An expression such as this demands a response. But the response they desired did not come from the palace.Where was the Queen? Why weren’t the royals giving emotional public tributes to the woman Blair called “The People’s Princess”? Why couldn’t the cameras get inside that palace to give us the scoop? Where was the drama we demanded? And why wasn’t the flag above Buckingham Palace flying at half-mast?

The outraged public hunting for scapegoats, and the royals would not come down and weep and participate in the wild circus of public mourning, it was inevitable that the crown would become the target of a nation’s rage.

Meanwhile, the people’s newly elected Labor prime minister, Tony Blair, who had just won the election by a landslide, was, in front of the cameras, responding with eloquence and emotion. He gave voice to the people’s feelings. They felt suddenly and unexpectedly united by his summations of their sadness.

And still the palace was silent. This eventually stirred up rumors, and anger, and eventually the kind of resentment that can boil over into violent action.

Stephen Frears’ film The Queen takes us into the middle of this chaos. And the result goes a long way toward answering the question of the royal family’s silence, helping us to understand why Queen Elizabeth II failed to respond for so many days. Some may even come to agree with the way that the Queen handled Diana’s death. While Frears’ film is hardly a whitewashing of the walls of the House of Windsor — he lays the faults of the royal family bare for all to see — he does help us begin to grasp the reasoning behind the restraint, and the purpose of keeping certain things private rather than parading them out at the whims of the public.

Frears finds this conflict to be the heated core of many cultural tensions, and by focusing on the figure hidden behind the palace walls, he ends up revealing much not only about the scandal but about a continental shift in British history.

He takes us inside, where we learn that the royals really weren’t so devastated over the loss, except insofar as they had to comfort two boys who had lost their mother. To make a big emotional speech? That would have been dishonest, and worse (in their estimation), inappropriate. The Queen and her husband had been bothered by Diana, for she was so foreign to their legacy and traditions and sense of propriety. Diana made public things that they, in their embarrassment and shame, wanted to keep private. all of the matters within the palace a public affair. While they had been troubled by Charles’ infidelity, they hadn’t considered it their responsibility to deal with such family affairs on the public stage.

Still, it’s clear that they were partly to blame for the disaster. The royals proved themselves capable of covering up and ignoring their sins much the way the U.S. government is capable of covering up or downplaying the crimes of its own officials, or the way the church tends to be quick to absolve its own priests and pastors. The Queen isn’t a celebration and exoneration of the Royal Family — it portrays them as self-interested and avoiding any question of what sparked this crisis in the first place: Charles’ deception and infidelity.

We watch as the Queen, who has always been bothered by Diana’s popularity, bristles as her son’s dirty laundry is hung out on the front lawn for all to see. The customs she carries on have lived for many generations; so she assumes, as does her blunt, bitter, temperamental husband Prince Phillip, that this public hysteria is just a phase that will pass in a few days.

But it doesn’t. No, the world really has changed.

And it’s going to take Elizabeth a while to absorb the truth that the monarchy is not very well respected or understood any longer. When she wakes up to learn about the tragedy, it’s as if she’s waking up to a whole new era. The slow march of progress has gone on too gradually for the reality of it to sink into the royals heads and hearts.

Frears’ film might have served merely to show the breakdown of the family as they absorb the discovery of their own declining importance. But instead, it serves to quietly and carefully awaken us to what it has cost Britain to shove this institution aside in the name of “modernization.”

We experience this awakening through the slow but admirable wizening of Tony Blair, who is played with impressive accuracy and intelligence by Michael Sheen.

When Charles (played by Alex Jennings, who does not resemble the Prince of Wales at all) returns Diana’s body to England, the queen slips away from the media circus and goes to Balmoral, hoping the whole thing will blow over.

Meanwhile, Blair does the dutiful thing in responding to the people and representing them, giving their grief an eloquent voice. And his popularity skyrockets. He might have let that heroism go to his head, and called for reform that would have toppled the monarchy and robbed it of any relevance at all.

But he did not. And the film portrays him as beginning to understand that this is not merely obstinance he faces. Early in the film, we see him rolling his eyes at the royal family. “Will someone please save these people from themselves?” he asks, exasperated. And his wife, Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory), writes off the royal family as a bunch of “freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters.” But Blair isn’t willing to write the family off. He can see their naiveté and corruption, but he doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It is, he begins to understand, the burden of a legacy weighing on Elizabeth’s shoulders. If she concedes to his requests to grant the people’s demand for a speech and a public funeral, she betrays the tradition, and she shows that the crown is vulnerable to arrows fired from the spiteful kingdom of gossip. She refuses to surrender herself to acting at the whims of an impulsive and demanding people. But if she does not, the people may turn against the royal family and all of their history in contempt.

Some critics are saying the film portrays Blair as an opportunist, seizing the day to advance his own popularity. But in this film, I see more than that: I see a man who, like Diana, is impulsive, emotional, and intuitive. But more than that, he’s also patient, willing to consider other perspectives… other cultures, in fact. He bristles when others suggest he’s merely playing a smart game. He becomes a sort of translator, justifying the ways of the monarchy to a disgruntled people, even as he tries to coax the Queen toward a sacrificial act in the name of reconciliation.

If the film has a weakness, it is not the way it makes a sympathetic hero of Blair. It is instead the way it gives little thought to one of the primary causes of the crisis. The monarch’s crime was not, as the people decided, an unwillingness to break their own rules and put on some elaborate charade. It was their willingness to cover up and give sanction to the prince in his infidelity in the first place. It was their silence, and thus their consent, to the betrayal of the symbol of marriage… marriage between husband and wife before God, and between the royalty and their public

Title and authority places upon a person more than the usual weight of personal responsibility — it places upon them the burden of leadership, and of preserving the meaning of symbol and ritual. When a king or a prince betrays his wife, or a president deceives his nation, he communicates to the nation that he lacks integrity and restraint and self-control; but worse, it communicates that he has no respect for the covenant of that marriage, or the value of a promise.

In protecting Charles and behaving as if it was Diana’s responsibility to just tough out the affair, the royal family condemned themselves. This issue goes all but overlooked in the film.

But then agian, this is not a movie about Charles’ unfaithfulness to Diana. It’s a film about the Queen’s faithfulness to history, and to fulfill the vows she took.

Thus, when Elizabeth’s crisis point comes, it is not a breakdown over the death of Diana. It is instead a moment of surrender to the weight of her responsibility, after doing what she can to hold together what’s left of her legacy. Her heart is broken with the help of a beautiful elk — a fourteen-point buck who inspires the local hunters. He comes to represent the beauty and elegance of Elizabeth’s tradition, and it is shocking to see the utter disregard that some people, like hunters with rifles or tabloid reporters armed with microphones, can have for such regal grace and beauty.

Overall, the film is powerfully eloquent about the weaknesses of the monarchy’s traditions, and even more eloquent about what we are losing as cultural trends slowly push that institution aside.

The last shot of the film is perfectly chosen. And I couldn’t help but wonder if it offers a wry comment on the change: The queen and her Prime Minister are walking through the manicured garden, staying on the prescribed path, and who is it that runs roughshod across the grounds, disregarding these lines and ignoring the classical fountain and statues? The dogs.

Judging from the way many of the viewers around me yipped, snapped, and yelped at every opportunity to mock the queen and the monarchy, it’s clear that the dogs will continue to have their day.

While the film is about an historic British monarch on one level, it is, on another, about the reigning queen of British screen acting.

As she has proved again and again — especially in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park — Helen Mirren is a masterful actor. She can communicate with a quiver of her brow or the slightest tilt of her head more eloquently than most actresses can with a whole emotional speech. She has proven this again and again, reminding us that there is no substitute for craft and control.

In The Queen, it is precisely her craft and control that make her performance so powerful. If she wins the Academy Award this year — and she’s unlikely to have any serious challengers — it will be a lesson to those who think that scenes of emotional breakdowns or zealous speeches are the best opportunities an actress can hope for.

In this role, it is Mirren’s task to put on a mask that has hardened through centuries of tradition, manner, and duty. And her triumph is that she is able to convey a world of complex emotions through that mask. While the others around her burst with emotion, her quiet resilience slowly becomes a show of strength that demands respect. It is her restraint rather than hysteria, her quiet rather than a boisterous speech, and her effortless poise rather than grandstanding, that shake the house.

This performance is especially resonant because it reinforces the central lesson of The Queen. Mirren’s approach to acting is classical, formal, thorough, and subtle. It comes from a lifetime of practice, and her dedication to doing everything the way it should be done gives her integrity and strength. Based on the honors it usually hands out, Hollywood would have us believe that greatness lies in mere audacity, in the willingness to perform daring sex scenes or to burst into geysers of tears on cue. Mirren’s performances are not exhibitionism… they are slow-burn revelations that will stand the test of time.

And thus, it is a perfect bit of casting to have her play Elizabeth. For, like the Queen, she may be old-fashioned, but she understands the power and the purpose of restraint.

Here’s hoping that the Academy recognizes such exceptional work, and gets it right this time.

Perhaps they’ll even decide to honor the director as well.

There aren’t many directors capable of doing what Stephen Frears has done so far in his career. Think back on his wide array of notable, memorable films, which have spanned so many different subjects in strikingly different contexts, genres, and styles. From sumptuous period pieces like Dangerous Liaisons and Mary Reilly to the hip crime caper The Grifters, small-scale comedies like The Snapper and The Van, troubling thrillers like Dirty Pretty Things, and hip comedies like High Fidelity, he’s one of the most versatile directors working today.

And if I were asked to rate his accomplishments, I’d be tempted to call this one his finest.

Directed by Stephen Frears; written by Peter Morgan; director of photography, Affonso Beato; edited by Lucia Zucchetti; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Alan Macdonald; produced by Christine Langan, Tracey Seaward and Andy Harries; released by Miramax Films.Starring – Helen Mirren (the Queen), Michael Sheen (Tony Blair), James Cromwell (Prince Philip), Sylvia Syms (the Queen Mother), Alex Jennings (Prince Charles), Helen McCrory (Cherie Blair), Roger Allam (Sir Robin Janvrin) and Tim McMullan (Stephen Lamport). 103 minutes.