Dir: Stephen Frears. UK2006. 97mins.

The British have been making films about their RoyalFamily almost since cinema began. What is so distinctive about Stephen Frears' brilliant new feature The Queen is that it is unfolds only a few years ago - in 1997 atthe time of Princess Diana's death - and depicts characters still living and inpower. Despite an occasional tendency toward mannerism and caricature in theearly scenes, Frears steers a deft line betweensatire and sycophancy, creating a work that is ultimately complex and moving.

Generating buzz in advanceof its world premiere in Venice, The Queen is bound to turn into afull-blown media phenomenon in the UK when Pathereleases it on Sept 15. Of course it will remind home audiences of the hysteriasurrounding the death of "the people's princess", when the British - supposedlybuttoned up and repressed - gave full vent to their emotions. ("Something hashappened," the Queen, played by Helen Mirren,belatedly acknowledges, "there has been a change, a shift in values."). But formany it will also bring back memories of the enormous optimism about prime minister Tony Blair's first LabourGovernment, which was elected only a few months before Diana died. Nine yearson, as Blair's premiership enters its final phase, much of that optimism hasdissipated.

There is clearly hugeinternational interest in the subject matter, too. Whatever its wobbles inrecent years, the British Royal Family remains a brand with immediate worldwiderecognition value while Diana's iconic status is undimmed. The Queen has pre-sold widely and will be opening the New York FilmFestival prior to its USrelease through Miramax later in the autumn. Helen Mirren'sbeautifully nuanced performance as Queen Elizabeth II is likely to be crowned witha host of awards nominations (she won an Emmy last month for her portrayal ofElizabeth I in the same-named TV mini-series).

For better or worse, theRoyal Family remains an integral part of life in Britain. The Queen's image is seenon everything from stamps to tea towels. It is more than 50 years since hercoronation, but she remains an aloof and enigmatic figure, and outside herbroadcasts to the nation is not given to public utterances. Audiences will beimmensely curious about a film that attempts to show the human being behind theregal persona. With its shots of the Queen's four corgis bouncing through thegardens, its sweeping imagery of the Scottish Highlands and its portrayal ofthe Windsorsat home, The Queen will appeal toRoyal lovers.

However, those who believethat this particular family and its associates are - as Helen McCrory's Cherie Blair suggests - "freeloading, emotionallyretarded nutters" - will find little to change theirminds. In the end, the debate about the relevance of the Royal Family isn'twhat the film is about. This is a detailed character study of two characters:Blair (Michael Sheen) and the Queen during a tumultuous period in both theirlives.

The Queenis the second collaboration between Frears and Morganfollowing on from The Deal, themade-for-TV drama exploring the vexed relationship between Blair and hisChancellor Gordon Brown. Again, it takes a little to get over the discordanteffect of actors playing real-life characters who are so well known.

Early on, it seems to beshaping up as a satirical comedy. We first see the Queen watching Blair's(Michael Sheen) election triumph on TV while having her portrait painted. Thereis politicking on every side and this intensifies following the death ofPrincess Diana, as Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) desperately tries to reachout to Blair and the media. The Queen herself remains aloof, cocooned from thegrowing public outcry about the perceived callousness of the monarchy on her Balmoral estate; meanwhile Blair's advisers, led byAlistair Campbell, are openly contemptuous of the Royal Family, as is his wife.Chancellor Gordon Brown doesn't feature at all but the film-makers are able toconvey the tension between him and Blair simply through the device of showingthe prime minister refuse to take one of his phone calls.

Gradually, as Blair beginsto feel sympathy for the Queen and resolves to help her out of the PR hole shehas dug for herself, the storytelling becomes far richer and more affecting.The wonder of Mirren's performance is that she isable throughout to convey her character's hauteur and sense of duty but alsoher vulnerability.

There is an emotional depth,too, to Sheen's portrayal as Blair. In TheDeal, his portrait of the prime minister sometimes felt like a very clevercaricature, rich in smarm; here, as he comes to theaid of the stricken older woman (who in some subliminal way reminds him of hismother), he is far more sympathetic.

The film-makers never losetheir sense of irony or political perspective. To Cherie, Tony's mountingadmiration for the Queen is simply history repeating itself. "At the end of theday, all Labour prime ministers go gaga for theQueen," she goads him. Nonetheless, audiences too are likely to share hissympathy. In one key scene, the Queen is shown, having reluctantly returned to London, meeting the crowds outside Buckingham Palace.Slowly, she begins to accept that she has utterly misjudged the mood of thepeople.

Peter Morgan's screenplaylargely avoids polemics or cheap shots and has clearly been exhaustivelyresearched. Even the most comic and intimate lines (for example, JamesCromwell's Prince Phillip telling the Queen to "move over, cabbage" as heclambers into bed) are apparently sourced, and the extensive use of archive footage(on which Power Of Nightmaresdirector Adam Curtis advised) only adds to the air of verisimilitude.

The production and costumedesign are witty and instructive. The film-makers contrast the formal luxury inwhich the Royal Family live with the Blair's cramped and untidy home. Whereasthe Queen's shelves are full of beautifully embossed old books, the Blairs' shelves heave under the weight of endlesspaperbacks.

At home, Blair is spotted ina Newcastle United football shirt whereas the Queen is seen in her familiarheadscarves. She has an army of servants while he does the washing up. PrincePhillip comes across as an avuncular but bloodthirsty old reactionary: hisreaction to the death of Diana is to propose taking her children out on themoors to kill a stag, as if a little blood sport is the best thing to keepgrief at bay.

The Queenmanages the rare feat of being fair without being bland. Neither Buckingham Palacenor Downing Street can complain that it's adistorted picture of what happened during that week in September, after Diana'sdeath, or that it presents the key protagonists in a misleading light. At thesame time, there is a warmth and humour here which nodocumentary account would ever likely capture.

Production companies
Pathe Productions
Pathe Renn Productions
BIM Distribuzione
France 3 Cinema
Canal Plus

International sales
Pathe International

UK distribution

Executive producers
Francois Ivernel
Cameron McCracken
Scott Rudin
Andy Harries
Christine Langan
Tracey Seaward

Peter Morgan

Affonso Beato

Production design
Alan Macdonald

Lucia Zucchetti

Alexandre Desplat

Main cast
Helen Mirren
Michael Sheen
James Cromwell
Helen McCrory
Alex Jennings
Roger Allam
Sylvia Syms
Mark Bazeley
Earl Cameron
Tim McMullan