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The Queen (2006)

Long live the queen. In this instance Helen Mirren. After giving a majestic performance of Queen Elisabeth on HBO?s 2006 miniseries, here she is at it again this time as Queen Elisabeth II. Mirren is utterly magnificent in the role and burrows her way deep into her character, completely losing herself. Director Stephen Frears’ The Queen is a docu-drama examining the royals’ response to the tragedy of Princess Di’s death. It’s both a comedy of culture clash between the tradition-oriented world of the royals and the modern world that has moved beyond figureheads and symbols of monarchy and a drama exploring the grieving process. Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan build great sympathy for the queen and the rest of these nutty royals, all stuck in a different age and hesitant and confused about mounting outcries for change. The royal family doesn’t understand the public’s demand to fly the flag over the palace at half mast in honor of Di’s passing; it hasn’t flown at half mast for over 400 years for anybody, kings and queens, let alone someone no longer part of that family. Even Prince Charles comes across remorseful, heartfelt, a little strange, but very identifiable. Plus, as my wife noted, the actor looks a lot better than his real-life counterpart. It’s funny but also sad when the Queen Mum is hurt when her own funeral arrangements, the ones she picked out, will be used in a hurry for Di. The film pays equal attention to the rise of the new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and his frustrated relationship trying to save the royal family in a PR nightmare. Mirren, though, is absolute royalty. She plays a character prided in her decades-long approach to shielding emotion, to stoicism, to stiff upper lips, and Mirren displays the flashes of grief, befuddlement, and tenderness that register through that tricky prism. Queen Elisabeth II figures the public doesn’t want someone all weepy. She did, after all, begin her service around World War II when Winston Churchill was her first Prime Minister. The world has changed, she fears, and wonders if she’s fit to lead her people when she doesn’t even know what they want. The Queen is a sterling character piece with excellent direction and great performances. It’s quiet and moving but also a deeply fascinating behind the curtain view at a moment in time. And yet… I cannot help but feel some distance to the movie; I cannot put my arms around it just quite yet. The Queen is a very good film, of course, with an Oscar shoo-in performance by Mirren, but the free-floating plot and the intentional repetition and disconnect kept me from embracing this movie totally.

Nate?s Grade: B+

Dirty Pretty Things (2003)

Director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters) has shown an unflinching eye at the fringe elements of society. In the new thriller Dirty Pretty Things the focus is on the struggling lives of illegal immigrants in over their heads.

The London that Frears displays is the sordid underbelly, the type that hasn’’t seen the light in ages. These people are treated like they’re disposable. Those with whatever menial amount of power, even if it’s a single step higher, prey on these immigrants. “”How come I haven’’t seen you before?”” one character asks another. “”Because we are the people who are not seen,”” he replies.

The heart of the film (you’ll get the pun soon) follows the lives of two immigrants. Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is from Nigeria and works days as a cab driver and nights as a front desk clerk at a hotel. Senay (Amelie’’s Audrey Tatou) is a Turkish housekeeper at the same sleazy hotel trying to stay one step ahead of immigration police. Okwe is instructed to ignore all the salient comings and goings of the hotel. “People come to us to do dirty things,” says the creepy hotel manager Mr. Sneaky (yes, that is his name). “It’s our job to make things pretty the next morning.” Things get more complicated when Okwe discovers a human heart clogging a room toilet. It seems that for some who check into the hotel, they don’t check out. Okwe and Senay become entangled in a bloody scheme that threatens their lives and their immigration status.

Dirty Pretty Things is never boring, sometimes compelling, and more thrilling than you would believe with a plot concerning immigration. The characters earn our attention and emotions with Senay’’s vulnerability to Okwe’’s tenderness and resolute integrity. They draw us in and we genuinely care what happens as they are snared into the creepy clutches of Mr. Sneaky.

It’’s here that I feel obliged to mention that Steven Knight, the writer of Dirty Pretty Things, is the co-creator of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Just consider the possibilities of future game show creators-turn-thriller screenwriters: Merv Griffin’’s hard hitting thriller on the lives of firemen, anyone? It could have the corny tagline, “”There’’s only one rule of firefighting –– never fall in love.”” Maybe this only fascinates me.

Frears’’ direction is rock solid. He plays to the best aspects of thrillers, like a suffocating feeling of paranoia but doesn’’t suffer the thriller flaws because of such resonant and buoyant characters. Frears is confidant to not overcompensate with his storytelling and lets the grimy locations create his stark mood for him. You can almost taste the stale air.

The acting is exceptional. Ejiofor is amazing. He gives a stellar performance rich in complexity, anxiety, uncertainty, and just plain goodness. He seems to be the last honest man in all of London. There are several scenes you can feel the debate of emotions raging inside him. Tatou, in her first English language role, gives a strong performance, though I’’m curious as to where her “Turkish” accent went. With her penetrating dark eyes and elfin smirk, Tatou is still one of the most adorable actresses on either side of the pond.

Dirty Pretty Things is a searing look at the faceless underprivileged seeking a new life, and those who would deviously prey upon them. The film is a smart, superbly directed, and wonderfully acted thriller. It’’s a thriller without weird kids who see ghosts, or lesbians with ice picks, but Dirty Pretty Things is a film that’ll stay with you long after the lights go up in the theater.

Nate’s Grade: A

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