Helen Mirren pulls off a royal performance

`She'd enter her trailer looking like Helen and leave it looking like the queen'

October 19, 2006|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Helen Mirren has such a strong physical presence that it's hard to isolate her voice from the rest of her acting. The unconventionality of her jutting nose makes her gorgeously proud, and her alert face even more beautiful; her body is all business, whatever the business at hand.

Yet when you hear her voice on the phone from Los Angeles, her personality comes across in every sound she makes, from the zesty, womanly curiosity of her "Oh, really?" or "That's very interesting" to the declarative romance of "I love that."

Jeremy Irons put it best when he told The New Yorker's John Lahr that "she's alluring to men" because "she is the complete antithesis of the vapid."

On the phone, she's all there. It isn't just that she means everything she says, but that she isn't afraid to say anything she means, and she has the powers of articulation and nuance to make it instantly understandable. Her effortless control of volume, mood, range and inflection register as heightened naturalness. You know how some of the best movies, plays and TV shows are like real life, only more so? Interviewing Mirren is like talking to a real person, only more so.

She's calling to promote Stephen Frears' superb The Queen (opening tomorrow in Baltimore), in which she pulls off a virtuoso turn in an atypical role. She plays Queen Elizabeth II, and the movie follows her after Princess Diana's death, when she was seen as the protector of hollow formality because she failed to react with precedent-breaking extravagance and immediacy to the public outpouring of grief for "the people's princess."

Even the offhandedly brave Mirren admits it was a huge leap for her to take on the queen. Because "as an actor" Mirren's "whole world has to do with imagination," she says "if the queen has a fault, I think it's that she does have a lack of imagination. But in a way that's what's kept her steady and secure in herself." And what fills that imagination gap? A sense of history? "Absolutely. I think people really underestimate that sense within the kind of vibrant, active, present monarchy that the British have."

Fans of Mirren's will see her performance as an even bigger feat than she does. Here she's playing the most buttoned-up character imaginable. But from the start, she's been the intellectual's sex symbol. She tore into spectacular roles and often doffed her clothes on British stages from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, playing Cressida in Troilus and Cressida, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, as well as contemporary parts like a rock chanteuse in David Hare's Teeth and Smiles and other non-Shakespearean classics, such as Nina in The Seagull.

In her first great movie role as a tough, smart, sensual moll in the British gangster film The Long Good Friday (1980), she went toe-to-toe with Bob Hoskins, creating a woman who controlled her big shot's detonations and even, in a wrestling feint, fought him to a standstill. As the sexy-treacherous sorceress Morgana in Excalibur (1981), she did the same kind of thing to Nicol Williamson's Merlin.

A decade later, as London's Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison in PBS' Prime Suspect series (the final edition airs this fall), Mirren inspired women and enthralled men with her portrayal of a character uniting instinct and intelligence, vulnerability and iron will, humor and obsession, as she fought crime and patriarchy. Mirren has said Tennison is the one character she doesn't have to pre-think at all.

Character study

Generally, both Mirren and Michael Sheen, who plays Tony Blair in The Queen, research their characters assiduously, then leave the research at the stage or soundstage door. Sheen and Mirren got to play together in a pleasurable pressure cooker, shooting their two pivotal scenes in just two days. Sheen says of her: "You can't play the queen without guts and courage and chutzpah. But Helen also has the steel."

Mirren, 61, started this century doing splendid supporting parts in Robert Altman's Gosford Park and Fred Schepisi's Last Orders and is now on a major roll. She's moved from giving expression to a monarch's "cruel passions" with a throaty roar as the title character in HBO's Elizabeth I, to painting an audio picture of centered authority with peerless enunciation as Elizabeth II. When you speak to Mirren, you realize how all her characters' qualities are contained in her own emotional sound-spectrum; in a single sentence she can rove from delight and hushed intimacy to salty directness and irony.

Her mother, a butcher's daughter married to a Russian-emigre viola player and cab driver (he also was a driving-test examiner), paid for her to get elocution lessons as a child, and she must have consumed their wisdom and moved on early. Neither those lessons nor her years at England's National Youth Theater and the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company have straitened her spontaneity. (She also logged time in Peter Brooks' avant-garde ensemble.)

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