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It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when liking our leaders became more important than respecting them. I am no expert on politics, but I have always gauged that moment to have occurred in 1992, when then-candidate Bill Clinton answered a question from the audience during a campaign appearance about whether he wore boxers or briefs. Later, President George H.W. Bush refused to answer the same question, believing his underwear to be none of anybody’s business. He was right, of course, but he lost the election anyway. Clinton went on to become a two-term president, and Bush went home to Kennebunkport to write books that no one reads. The “underwear” question seemed to be a game-changer in American politics; from then on, if you wanted to run for office, you’d better be willing to drop your pants.

In “The Queen,” Stephen Frears’ penetrating look at the British royal family and their reaction to the death of Lady Diana, the central question is, “Can a leader in the modern media era lead without surrendering her dignity and privacy?”

When Lady Diana dies in a car crash, the Royal Family chooses to mourn her loss privately. They refuse to make public appearances, to fly the palace flag at half-mast, or otherwise to join the people in mourning Britain’s most beloved public figure. This reserved tone is at odds with an emotional eulogy given by Prime Minister Tony Blair (played with confident poise by Michael Sheen) in which he dubs Diana the “People’s Princess.” Even leaders from other countries such as Clinton and Nelson Mandela appear on British television to express their grief. When the Royals don’t join the chorus, their people (and the tabloids) accuse them of being cold, out of touch and even heartless.

The strength of this amazing film stems from Frears’ refusal to take sides or to embrace an easy answer. Queen Elizabeth is no stuffed shirt, devoid of feeling for her former daughter-in-law. She desperately loves her people and her country, but feels that the Royal Family’s worth stems from their reserve, their unflagging resolve in the face of all challenges and tragedies. By “letting the people in” and becoming yet another head of state crying for the cameras, Queen Elizabeth fears that she will diminish the crown in the eyes of her people. Indeed, she points out that the car crash that led to Lady Diana’s death was caused, in part, by pugnacious journalists who felt entitled to photograph and document her every move; Lady Diana had encouraged the people and the press to come in close and then had died for it.

But, lest you think that the film is a bone dry meditation on leadership and the mass media, I should add that “The Queen” is also immensely entertaining. It’s a crackling good political thriller, reminiscent of “All the President’s Men” or the criminally-underrated “Thirteen Days.”

And the performances are first-rate.

While the Queen struggles to decide what is best for her country, her son Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) is looking out for number one. As the man who married Lady Diana and then publicly took up with Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles fears that he will bear the brunt of the people’s mounting rage. He urges his mother to give the people what they want, an outward expression of grief, regardless of what it may do to the Monarchy.

Blair also feels that the Queen should make a public statement. He is adept at reading the political tea leaves and senses that the people’s outrage over the Queen’s perceived apathy may boil over and result in the end of the Monarchy. The Queen demurs, believing (or is it hoping?) that the whole thing is merely a tempest in a tea pot.

On the other hand, Crown Prince Phillip, played by James Cromwell with a truly wonderful, “Let them eat cake” arrogance, pushes the Queen in the other direction, insisting that any display of emotion is beneath the dignity of the Royals.

Helen Mirren’s performance as a queen in crisis is magnetic. Her Queen Elizabeth is a person, not an institution, an essentially shy woman who never wanted to be ruler in the first place. As a resut, the Queen considers her life to be one of stifling obligation, not privilege, while Lady Diana, to the Queen’s mind, is her polar opposite, a peacock who fled the Royal Family (and all its attendant duties) to cavort with celebrities and the idle rich. The Queen’s inability to understand Lady Diana’s appeal hinders her ability to understand her people.

Until one day, when Queen Elizabeth, while driving in the countryside, comes upon a magnificent stag, standing majestically atop a hill… Its pure beauty overwhelms her. Cracks of anguish appear in her normally cool façade as she realizes, in a lightning bolt moment, why her people were so transfixed by Lady Diana. Grace and loveliness are immensely inspiring, even if put to no grand purpose.

A great scene. A great performance. A great film.