Behind the Scene:God Save The Queen

Actress and Dame Helen Mirren has never been afraid of a challenge. ‘The Roaring Girl’ on stage with London’s Royal Shakespeare Company? Done that. ‘DCI Jane Tennison’ in British television’s hit series ‘Prime Suspect,’ all dark looks and savage crimes? Done that. A middle-aged housewife posing nude for a pin-up calendar in ‘Calendar Girls’? Done that too. This up-for-anything attitude is what makes her such a perfect choice for a cornucopia of calculating queens who have stalked across movie and television screens for the last 25 years. From Titania, queen of the fairies, to Lady Macbeth, queen of the night, to England’s exhausted Queen Charlotte in ‘The Madness of King George,’ Mirren has worn a variety of crowns. OK, yes, she did play the perfect servant with a secret in Robert Altman’s ‘Gosford Park,’ but even there she was the queen of the world below stairs.

While American actresses over the age of 40 often lament the dearth of roles available to them, British actresses just seem to get on with it.

Mirren’s royal presence is not unique but set like a blue-white diamond in a British crown that boasts Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Julie Walters and Diana Rigg. Passion and strength are her long suits, ones that she came by naturally, as well as a gloss of contentiousness. That’s inherited, too, as the direct descendant of Field Marshall Kamensky, one of Russia’s great heros of the Napoleonic Wars. But if Grandpa fought the French in the steppes of Russia, Dame Helen fights her battles on the screen.

Her most recent tour de force is a virtuoso showing as back-to-back queens, both named Elizabeth. Her TV turn as Elizabeth I, that fist of steel swathed in yards of silk, won a bushelful of Emmys in August, including one for Mirren as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Mini-Series or Movie. Give the girl a scepter and she’ll take it to the bank. Elizabeth I is a juicy role, one that everyone from Bette Davis to Jean Simmons to Glenda Jackson to Judi Dench to Cate Blanchett has lined up at the casting office to claim. Mirren made it her own, but her most recent dazzling success, unveiled at the Venice Film Festival at the beginning of this month, is that second Elizabeth, mother of Charles, grandmother of Will and Harry, not very stylish, not very young and not known for public displays of emotion.

Helen Mirren’s performance in ‘The Queen,’ opening in theaters on Sept. 30, took the award for Best Actress in Venice and has gotten an early nod for Oscar glory next year. In the film Mirren plays a bewildered royal who simply can’t understand what all the fuss is about when her erstwhile daughter-in-law, Princess Diana, dies in a car crash and unleashes a worldwide outpouring of grief. Mirren’s Elizabeth has spend a lifetime concealing her emotions and doing her duty with a stoic disregard for personal pain or pleasure. Now her subjects are demanding that she demonstrate a public sense of loss, that she show herself openly in a shared grief. A lifetime of harshly ingrained habits clash with a new world order which insists on a public (and possibly feigned) mourning. Should she abdicate, brazen it out, make a speech, stay silent? Mirren’s subtle acting is such that even through we know what really happened, we’re never quite sure what she will decide to do. As the saying goes, when you need a queen, and Britain has the market cornered, there’s nothing like a dame.

See you at the movies!