IN a scene from Stephen Frears's new movie, "The Queen", Elizabeth II is shown driving a Range Rover at her family’s remote Scottish retreat, trapped in an unpleasant conversation with her eldest son, Prince Charles.
The subject is Diane, Princess of Wales, whose death that week has sent Britain into a convulsion of collective grief (not shared by the royal family). When an emotionally confused Charles begins to babble about what a good mother Diana was — physically affectionate, full of love — it is clear what he is really saying: “You never hugged me as a child.”
That’s it for him. Abruptly the queen gets out of the car and opens the back door, liberating a passel of eager dogs. Her voice lifts. “Walkies!” she trills.
The situation is of course imagined, the pair played by actors (Helen Mirren) as the queen, Alex Jennings as Charles), the dialogue wholly made up and the filmmaker’s undertaking a daring one. The period covered by “The Queen,” the extraordinary week after Diana’s death on Aug. 31, 1997, was the strangest time in recent British history. The country was consumed by hysteria; the government and the royal family were locked in an unprecedented battle over how to respond.
Encouraged by a ravening news media, the crowds talked wildly of abolishing the monarchy. But the family itself remained in stubborn, splendid isolation in rural Scotland. The movie, which opens the New York Film Festival on Friday, and in New York theaters next Saturday, examines how the queen, finally ceding to increasingly alarmed entreaties from newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (played with unctuous eagerness by Michael Sheen), returned to London and addressed her subjects live on television when every fiber of her character and upbringing militated against it.
Making a movie that presumes to examine the inner life of the queen of England — and has her, for instance, padding around the house in a fluffy, rose-colored bathrobe — presented any number of intriguing problems.
For instance: how to portray her grumpy husband, Prince Philip (played by James Cromwell), as a credible member of the human race and not a lampoonable caricature? How to show Elizabeth’s flaws but also her humanity, when you believe (as Mr. Frears and his screenwriter, Peter Morgan, do) that the monarchy is an absurd anachronism? How to get her relationship with the image-obsessed prime minister just right?
And perhaps most of all, Mr. Frears and Mr. Morgan had to figure out how to breathe life into a figure of larger-than-life mystery, a woman both ubiquitous and unknowable.
“If you make films about living people, you always feel a responsibility and you bend over backwards,” Mr. Frears said in a telephone interview. “With the queen you’re not only dealing with your responsibility toward her, but everyone in the audience has very strong feelings and knows a lot about her. So you don’t do it casually. You have to be fair.”
The film has already drawn ecstatic reviews here. It even got an admiring endorsement from Patrick Jephson, Diana’s former private secretary, who wrote in The Spectator that “it might just be the best and most important film ever made about the Windsors.”
Dame Helen is an old hand at playing English queens. (She just won an Emmy Award for her title performance in the Channel 4 miniseries “Elizabeth I.”) Her work in “The Queen” brought her another prize this month — the best actress award at the Venice Film Festival — and reviews have praised the exquisite subtlety with which she evokes the inner life of a person to whom public duty is everything.
She looks and sounds the part, with the help of a gray wig, strategic padding and an upper-crust voice that sounds pilfered from one of Elizabeth’s annual Christmas addresses (the only time that most Britons generally hear the queen speak).
For research Dame Helen steeped herself in Elizabethiana, she said, reading biographies and watching old film clips, focusing on films of the young, pre-queen Elizabeth in order to get a sense of her off-duty world.
“Her iconic role is something she accepts and plays and has played all of her life,” Dame Helen said in a telephone interview. “There is this massive great structure that is the monarchy, performing all the things that the British public feels the monarchy should perform. But the extraordinary thing is that within the structure there is a human being, with insecurities and dignity and strength of character.”
In writing the character of the queen, Mr. Morgan said, he thought of his own mother, of the same generation and similar in her essential beliefs. “To do a hatchet job would have felt like matricide,” he said.