Helen Mirren has built quite a following with her portrayal of a police detective in the British TV series "Prime Suspect." Now, in a brand new movie, she has been given a dramatic promotion in rank, when she plays Queen Elizabeth II in the wake of Princess Diana's untimely death.
Here's the basic story of "The Queen": A pretty and vulnerable young woman marries into a stuffy royal family and runs afoul of the prince's mother, who's cold and dowdy and an enemy of spontaneous emotion.
Pretty standard fairy-tale stuff. Except it's topsy-turvy. The princess — it's Diana, Princess Di. And she's dead. Our heroine is Elizabeth II, the icy woman who tried to muzzle her — who can't even bring herself to make a public statement of grief. Talk about a challenge for the writer, Peter Morgan, and director, Stephen Frears. To make an audience give a fig, they had to cast Helen Mirren.
Dame Helen's face is the center of this sublime comedy of grand manners, and it's a face that barely bestirs itself. That doesn't mean she's inexpressive. It's the actors who express everything, who can't not be expressive, whose deadpan is most fully alive.
I first saw that face in "Excalibur", John Boorman's nutty Camelot movie, in which she played Morgana, the slinky witch who traps Nicol Williamson's Merlin. She has a touch of the madcap: she'd wriggle out of her own skin if that's what it took to ensnare you.
When Mirren passed 40 — she's now 61 — she became a specialist in women trapped in roles to which society has assigned them. Take Detective Jane Tennison in the British miniseries, "Prime Suspect": she has to project strength to get anywhere with the macho cops she oversees, but all her emotions bleed through-and make her better at her job than they are. In her Oscar-nominated performance in "Gosford Park," Mirren is a wealthy household's chief of staff. With her tight inflections, she seems emotionally dead. Then you learn her character's secret and it all makes devastating sense.
Elizabeth in "The Queen" was bred to rise above her private feelings and be a symbol — she can't believe Diana could have let herself be so open, so overflowingly human. The miracle of the movie is that even though you know she's clueless, Mirren makes you marvel at the will it takes to keep up appearances. Her paltry little public statement is not a stand-up-and-cheer kind of climax. But it's a momentous one, because it marks, for this queen, the passing of a more dignified, more orderly world.
What a subtle and funny and pitch-perfect performance. I'd mention the Oscar and yodel something blurb-worthy like "Long live Dame Helen." But that would be undignified. I'll just say, "well done."