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Crowning Achievements: The Queen and Borat

New films feature a royal scandal and a royal pain

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Whether or not one agrees with a character's declaration that the royal family is comprised of "freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters," it's fascinating to watch these upper-crust Brits play out their own sordid soap opera in The Queen (***1/2 out of four), a wicked -- and wickedly good -- show that takes a highly dubious premise and somehow turns it into one of the year's best films.

Director Stephen Frears, whose last picture, the shameless Mrs. Henderson Presents, is the sort of claptrap that he's far too talented to be handling, and writer Peter Morgan, who co-scripted The Last King of Scotland, have performed cinematic alchemy with this sharp and swift yarn. Set mostly in the days following the death of Diana back in 1997, it focuses on the royal family's reaction to the tragedy as well as the efforts of a newly elected prime minister to take control of the situation. It sounds like so much dreary sensationalism, a crass attempt at making a tawdry film that, frankly, would seem hard-pressed to adequately fill a 100-minute running time. Yet because Frears' direction is nimble and Morgan's script clever and resourceful, The Queen never bogs down in any potentially problematic areas. It manages to be both respectful and critical of the monarchy, a double-edged viewpoint that neatly reflects the attitude of the characters themselves.

The films begins with the landslide victory of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) as the new prime minister and his initial meeting with Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), who clearly has little regard for this populist politician. It picks up again a few months later, when the residents of Buckingham Palace are awoken out of their royal slumber by the news that Diana was killed in an automobile accident in Paris while fleeing from pesky paparazzi. Because the former princess is no longer officially part of the royal family -- she and Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) had already divorced -- Elizabeth, the ogreish Prince Philip (James Cromwell) and the clueless Queen Mother (Sylvia Sims) see no reason why they should get involved in the tragedy beyond grieving for the young woman in private (and, truth be told, only Charles seems capable of shedding any tears among this frosty lot).

But Blair sees matters more realistically. Because Diana was the equivalent of a rock star or movie star among the British populace, the public mourning is so strong that it becomes a tangible force that needs addressing. Blair figures that a press statement by the royal family (at least) and a public funeral (at most) would help the nation heal, but Elizabeth and her clan refuse, little aware that their decision will stir genuine contempt among the commoners on the streets. It only dawns on Elizabeth gradually that it's Diana -- "the people's princess," as Blair calls her -- rather than Elizabeth herself who rests in the hearts of the Brits, and that there are many who think that the monarchy has outlived its relevancy and perhaps should be disbanded. Ironically, it's the progressive Blair, a leader determined to carry his nation forward into the 21st century, who might be the only one who can prevent the ages-old monarchy from becoming extinct.

Mirren's performance is a thing of beauty. She initially makes Elizabeth as impenetrable as Fort Knox, yet as the movie moves forward, there are cracks in her demeanor that allow us to see that this woman is finally coming to terms with just how of touch with her subjects she might be. Queen Elizabeth isn't a sentimental character and Helen Mirren doesn't whip up a sentimental moment for our appeasement (or for blatant Oscar consideration), yet when she experiences her small bursts of epiphany, we're moved nonetheless. Credit also goes to Michael Sheen, who admirably keeps pace with Mirren. Sheen captures and amplifies the hopefulness that defined Tony Blair before he became George W. Bush's lapdog, and his charismatic turn slyly keeps us guessing how much of the character's humanist actions regarding the whole Diana affair springs from genuine concern and how much is triggered by political ambition. Mirren and Sheen are excellent throughout the picture, yet it's in their couple of scenes together that the actors especially shine, as their characters warily size each other up in an attempt to ascertain whether they're standing across friend or foe. There's a playfulness in the staging of their parrying, a desirable condition that also permeates the rest of this majestic entertainment.

THEY SAY THAT IGNORANCE IS BLISS, but when it comes to Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (*** out of four), it just might prove to be a handicap.

Although it's not quite the most buzzed about movie of 2006, as Newsweek reported a few weeks ago (have they already forgotten about that migraine-inducer called Snakes On a Plane?), the media coverage has been substantial enough that Borat stands poised to possibly emerge as a breakout hit. Originally conceived as a character on HBO's Da Ali G Show, Borat Sagdiyev is a Kazakh journalist who, in this film, comes to America to make a documentary.

There's your plot. Yet what makes Borat different is that creator-star Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays the insensitive and language-mangling journalist, never breaks character, interviewing scores of ordinary Americans who genuinely believe that they're being questioned by a foreign reporter for a nonfiction piece that would presumably remain confined to the backwaters of a distant land. This naiveté and belief in anonymity allow the participants to open up more freely to Borat, often garnering controversial results.

And therein lies the dilemma. If Borat is staged in any way, then it's a hot-and-cold "mockumentary" that pales next to the Christopher Guest titles (Best In Show, A Mighty Wind); despite many uproarious moments, it stretches its one-joke concept to the breaking point, and after about an hour, you'll be satisfied. And indeed, there are a handful of sequences that feel orchestrated: the Pamela Anderson interlude, for example, or a bit involving a flailing horse.

Yet the filmmakers have loudly and repeatedly insisted that everything outside of Borat and his manager (played by Ken Davitian) is authentic in the picture: the situations, the interviewees, and the reactions of ordinary folks to Borat's outrageous antics. If that's the case, then Borat is borderline genius, an inspired piece of guerilla filmmaking that's able to gauge the real pulse of America and unearth some unpleasant (if hardly surprising) truths. The movie uses fictional bigotry (Borat's) to reveal the real-life prejudices that blot the U.S. landscape, and, in that regard, it emerges as an unexpected piece of sociopolitical muckraking.

Even though my ignorance will never be fully assuaged -- after poring over countless articles, I'm still not totally convinced that the thumb wasn't placed on the scale every once in a while -- I'm willing to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, largely because it's impossible to deny Cohen's brilliance in creating this unique comic character. Cohen is fearless in his confrontations with various citizens across our land, whether he's telling a crowd of rodeo yahoos that he supports our War on Terror and longs for the day when Bush will "drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq," or when he hands a dinner hostess a napkin containing his bodily refuse because he doesn't grasp the functionality of the toilet and the principles of indoor plumbing.

Most of the people Borat encounters react with befuddlement or amusement, but his non-P.C. demeanor invariably arouses the similar passions of some loathsome individuals. A group of frat boys (from South Carolina, no less) discuss women in typically vulgar terms, a Virginia redneck longs for the public executions of homosexuals, and a gun store owner gladly offers suggestions when Borat asks him which weapon is best for killing Jews. Scenes such as these inspire queasiness and sadness more than they encourage laughter, which, one assumes, was Cohen's purpose all along. Borat is often convulsively, savagely funny (once seen, it's impossible to block out the nude wrestling match), but beneath the scatology and mockery rests a knowingness about the manner in which societal prejudices can be hidden, diverted and even encouraged. In that regard, this is one smart movie.

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