In her latest film, Helen Mirren plays a pensioner whose reluctance to adapt to late-20th-century life threatens to alienate her from those who hold her dear. It's almost incidental that this elderly woman is Queen Elizabeth II, and that those loved ones are the members of the British public who waited - and waited - for her to address publicly the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. The Queen, Stephen Frears's film about this pivotal moment, shows the Windsors bickering in front of the television, more like the Royles than royals. We hear Prince Philip (James Cromwell) say, as he climbs into bed, "Move over, cabbage." And we see the cabbage herself receiving the bad tidings about Diana while clutching a hot-water bottle. In the sketching of such details, the film is at its most assured. Any commentary on weightier matters is faint to the point of being negligible.
Frears and the writer Peter Morgan - who last collaborated on The Deal, the 2003 film for TV about the Blair/Brown leadership trade-off - regard Tony Blair as the hero of the hour for eventually coaxing the Queen into public view. The picture opens with her being introduced to her new Prime Minister, played here, as he was in The Deal, by Michael Sheen, in the manner of an excitable pixie. He drops to one knee and forgets to get up again, then plants a kiss on the royal hand. Elizabeth examines the spot touched by his lips, possibly wondering whether to scrub herself with sterilising fluid.
The dynamic changes following Diana's death, however. Behind the scenes, there is speculation about how the Queen will respond to the demise of her bête noire in a car crash. "Ask her if she greased the brakes," suggests Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley). But it soon becomes clear that the royal family has no intention of responding at all. "In 48 hours, it'll all blow over," Prince Philip tells his wife as they picnic at Balmoral.
In their refusal to play the public relations game, the Windsors create an opportunity for Blair to nip in quick and claim the glory. After watching the Prime Minister's speech, in which Blair coined the phrase "the people's princess", the Queen's deputy private secretary, Sir Robin Janvrin (Roger Allam), snorts: "Bit over the top, don't you think?" Behind him, fellow members of staff are sobbing into their hankies.
There is no shortage here of crowd-pleasing impersonations. Alex Jennings makes an anguished Prince Charles, with his characteristic lockjawed grimace. Helen McCrory, as Cherie Blair, is such a pantomime villain that you keep wanting to shout, "She's behind you!" Mirren conveys big emotional shifts with nothing more than pursed lips and a flicker of the eyebrows. She also passes the test for any performer playing a reigning monarch: you look at her and remember that you're out of stamps.
What is fatally lacking in The Queen is any analytical rigour: like the royal family, the film-makers retreat at the first sign of difficulty. It is especially cowardly to portray the public unquestioningly as a benevolent mass, rather than as a baying mob advertising its grief with helium balloons that proclaim "We'll Miss You". The director who diagnosed England's failings so pointedly in Bloody Kids (1980) and My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) has neglected to grasp the principal irony of the post-Diana outcry: that it was the same public that revered the Queen's fidelity to the past and which berated her for her failure to adapt to the present.
Everything about this film, from conception to editing, feels under-scale and televisual. Nowhere is this more apparent than when the Queen realises that it's time to engage with the public, and with the memory of Diana. Frears and Morgan have cooked up a scene in which she encounters a magnificent stag roaming her Balmoral estate. When she learns later that it has been hunted and killed, she remarks sadly that she hopes it didn't suffer - inviting us to view the stag as a symbol for the dead princess.
The symbolism falls flat with a thud. Whatever else Diana might have been, she was not an entirely innocent beast hunted for sport - any more than the average stag craves Catherine Walker frocks and the company of Elton John.
Pick of the week
An Inconvenient Truth (U)
dir: Davis Guggenheim
Acclaimed documentary in which Al Gore, president who never was, squares up to global warming.
dir: Hans Horn
Nerve-racking ocean-bound thriller in the Open Water mould.
Little Miss Sunshine (15)
dirs: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
A dysfunctional family heads for a beauty pageant in California in this likeable road movie.