Tony and the Queen this history play should be called, because the relationship at its center is the one between young PM Tony Blair and HRH Elizabeth II. It is remarkable that such a candid and sober piece can be made with both of them still in power, especially since neither of them is portrayed in a flattering light. When it comes to the freedom of speech at least, the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain stacks up well against our shaggy democracy.

At the beginning of the film, it is Blair who yields to custom to play the Queen’s lapdog. But as the events surrounding the death of Diana increasingly show how absolutely out of touch she is with her subjects, it is Blair who holds the power over her. For all her intimidating talk of Winston Churchill, The Queen is politically clueless. Blair, sensing the opportunity to make a powerful ally, to help the royal family out of a sense of goodwill or perhaps just because the conservative Queen reminds him of his own late mum, takes the initiative and, as delicately as he can, guides the Queen back into the people’s favor.

Having just seen Mrs. Henderson Presents a few weeks back, I marvel again both at director Stephen Frears facility with his actors and inattentiveness to camerawork and other technical considerations. The Queen‘s cinematography is too drab, its musical score too jouncy, the montage leading up to Diana’s death reminiscent of D.W. Griffith. But the performances win out in the end.

Helen Mirren has rightly been getting a great deal of awards attention for hers. But the Tony Blair of Michael Sheen (who has a small role in Blood Diamond) is equally entrancing. All the qualities Blair has become known for are here: the Clintonian empathy, the cold shoulder to Gordon Brown, the willingness to play a lapdog under infatuation. The most devastating moment of the film comes when Elizabeth notes that one day the people will turn as swiftly against Blair as they did against her. As Blair now ends his otherwise stellar political career under the ignominious cloud of the Iraq war, Elizabeth’s words are meant to be prophetic. The quote that opens the film is apt on both their counts: “Heavy lies the head that wears the crown.”