There's a grand journalistic tradition of bragging, whenever a British film or a British star snags a gong or a statuette, about the "strength in depth" of British acting. Helen Mirren's Golden Lion at Venice for playing Queen Elizabeth II offers a perfect opportunity to start the celebrations; but watching the parade of talent in The Queen - Michael Sheen, Roger Allam, Alex Jennings - I felt a surge of glum anger at the terminal crumminess of the British film industry. "Strength in depth" is a nice way of saying that actors who by rights ought to be international stars are stuck in secondary roles. Where did it all go wrong? Why is a British film as good as The Queen such a depressing rarity?
The principal action is set during the week following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, on 31 August 1997 - when Tony Blair supposedly caught the public mood with talk of "the people's princess", and the Royal Family remained at Balmoral, trying to pretend this was a private affair; meanwhile, on the Mall, the crowds kept swelling, along with a sense of grievance against a monarchy "out of touch" with their feelings.
Stephen Frears' film dramatises the relationship between the Queen and Blair, showing it evolving from a confrontation between modernity and tradition into an uneasy alliance; and as the relationship evolves, so does the view the film offers of monarchy.
At the very beginning, in a prelude set the morning after Blair's landslide election victory, Peter Morgan's script lays out, just a little too starkly, the dichotomy on offer. On the one hand, we have tradition, represented by the crusty, fruity ciphers running the Royal Household, whose job it is to set out the protocol for the first audience between the Queen and her new Prime Minister (or, as the Queen herself points out, "Prime Minister to be - I haven't asked him yet"); on the other side, we have modernity, in the persons of Tony and Cherie, ill-at-ease and amused by all the nodding and "Ma'am"-ing.
It's not hard to see which side to be on, especially given the daringly heterodox decision to have Helen McCrory play Cherie as sympathetic, clever and witty - the way she backs out of that audience is a masterclass in repressed sarcasm. By the end of the film, though, what has been suggested is something quite different. New Labour is obsessed with outward show for its own sake (within an hour of Diana's death, Alastair Campbell is scribbling notes on a pad - "Beacon of hope" and, of course, "People's princess"); royal ceremonial, for all its absurdity, has come to seem a necessary shield for the human beings who live within it.
And they are human beings. After McCrory's performance, the boldest here may be Alex Jennings' Prince Charles who, on hearing of the death of his former wife, the mother of his children, lets out an involuntary cry of agony - as any man would. Mirren, too, gives a wonderfully rounded performance, charismatic, glowing with intelligence, yet somehow pinched - not an adjective you'd ever think Dame Helen would inspire. She conveys brilliantly what a lifetime of power, and the impossibility of relinquishing it, might do to a woman; and with the right hair and glasses she turns out to be a dead ringer.
Not all the acting is so good. James Cromwell doesn't manage to make the Duke of Edinburgh more than an awkward shell of a man. And Sheen's Blair is an adorable turn, at least to begin with (the fiddling with the cuffs, the ill-fitting suits, the easily flashing smile, they are all spot on); but as Blair's modernising tendencies blur, and Sheen starts to add depth, the portrayal starts to feel less plausible.
Sheen isn't helped by Frears' occasional lurch into caricature (Blair rehearsing his party conference speech in his kitchen, togged out in Newcastle strip); and there is a difficult moment late on, when the Queen succumbs to public pressure and Blair's pleading and flies down to face the crowds. Sheen is given a tirade to deliver to a boorish Campbell about the Queen's service to her country: it feels out of character, a sop to anybody in the audience who hasn't grasped the dialectic.
There are other points where Morgan's script seems compelled to press home the ironies - at the end, looking back on that week of hysteria, the Queen warns Blair that one day the crowds will turn on him, too. It's a shame that he slides into obviousness, because elsewhere Morgan shows a talent both for thought and for the throwaway line. An assistant tells Tony that Gordon's on the phone: "Tell him he'll have to hang on", Blair snaps; on their first meeting, the Queen interrogates Blair about his family - "Such a blessing, children," she says, with apparent sincerity. The film has other impressively unobtrusive touches - I loved the contrast it draws between the two Royal Households: the ritual-bound life at Balmoral, and the hectic round of burnt fishfingers and press conferences at the Blairs' constituency home in Sedgefield.
Among all the action, Frears and Morgan manage to create space for moments of genuine feeling. What starts as almost a running gag, about the Duke of Edinburgh's conviction that the best way of keeping William and Harry from brooding is a spot of shooting, turns into a subplot about the appearance on the royal estate of a magnificent stag, a 14-pointer. The film's emotional climax comes when the queen accidentally encounters the beast, while Philip is out stalking it. The symbolism - beleaguered monarch of the glen meets beleaguered monarch - is trite and manipulative; but the manipulation works.
Later, on walkabout in London, among the flowers laid for Diana, HM approaches a small girl clutching a bunch of flowers, and asks if the girl would like her to lay them; the girl says no, they're for you. As Mirren clutched the posy, I have to admit to a not unmanly tear starting.
It is a shame that, in focusing on one aspect of Diana's death, the film neglects the other big question: all that weeping and fulminating over Diana - what on earth did this country think it was up to?
At the same time, the film's narrowness of focus suggests an answer to that question I raised before, of what went wrong with our film industry. For years, we've been busy making versions of ourselves we think will sell abroad - there's the modern one, in which London is downtown LA plus rhyming slang, or the traditional, in which we're either floppy-haired west London fops or salt-of-the-earth unemployed northerners. The Queen tackles a uniquely British theme, and addresses itself unapologetically to a British audience, and it wins awards. Isn't that a lesson?
Anthony Quinn is away