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Helen Mirren is majestic as Queen Elizabeth II in 'The Queen'

Steven Rea
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Helen Mirren as the Queen.

There's something very "Wallace & Gromit" about Helen Mirren in "The Queen." Thick-calved, sensibly shod, with tweedy skirts, head scarves, and waxed huntsman jackets, Mirren's Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor struts about proudly, surrounded by All Things British.

PopMatters review of The Queen

NEW YORK -- There's something very "Wallace & Gromit" about Helen Mirren in "The Queen." Thick-calved, sensibly shod, with tweedy skirts, head scarves, and waxed huntsman jackets, Mirren's Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor struts about proudly, surrounded by All Things British. It's much the same universe that Nick Park's bumbling inventor and his scowling pooch belong to -- an old-fashioned, make-believe Britain -- albeit one of a distinctly different class.

Of course, Her Royal Highness happens to be real, and Wallace and Gromit are little bendable figures made of clay. But both consummately embody Englishness, clinging fiercely to a nostalgia-hued vision of the past.

"You have this monarchy that is so much to do with tradition and history and a particular Western European image of culture," says Mirren, looking less like Queen Elizabeth II and more like herself -- but still managing to be darn regal -- in the aptly-named Regency Hotel on Park Avenue. It is the day before the New York Film Festival, and Mirren and her movie are the opening-night attraction.

Brilliant, funny and sad, "The Queen" -- directed by Stephen Frears from a canny script by Peter Morgan -- is set in 1997, when Tony Blair was elected prime minister on a promise to "modernize" Britain, and when, on the last day of August, Princess Diana was killed in a car crash. That tragedy, and the royal family's stoic and ill-considered response to it, set off a crisis that threatened to bring down the monarchy -- or at least bring it down to size.

"It was the clash of the Old Way and the New," says Mirren, wearing a crisp blue suit. "Reserve and restraint versus massive displays of grief in the age of celebrity."

"You have people looking at the modern world," she adds, nailing the central theme of "The Queen," "saying, `I just don't understand it, I don't get it. I don't get a need to text-message your friend six times a day. I don't understand why a 7-year-old needs a mobile phone. I don't understand why Paris Hilton is the most famous woman in the world.' "

Mirren, 61, is not the most famous woman in the world, but she may be one of its best, most versatile actresses. Before "The Queen," shot last year, she made the little indie "Shadowboxer," in which she starred as a hit woman whose partner -- Cuba Gooding Jr. -- is also her stepson and lover. In this over-the-top crime pic, the two are seen vigorously coupling, naked.

"How daring and courageous of her to do what she did," exclaims Lee Daniels, "Shadowboxer's" first-time director. "The outtakes of this film, and that sex scene -- she went there!"

"In a way, `Shadowboxer' is the other side of me, if you know what I mean," Mirren says with a wry smile. "The two films are different in every way possible.

"And in-between, I do Elizabeth I," she says, referring to the lauded HBO film about the 16th century royal. "And I've done Jane Tennison, in `Prime Suspect 7.' It's an actress' dream!"

That series, which airs on PBS in November, is the swan song for Mirren's tough cop, a woman in a man's world, hard-drinking, hard-smoking, single, with the occasional lover and a ceaseless dedication to her job, despite the institutional and cultural obstacles in her way.

"That's a big one for me, as it's the last one," she says of "Prime Suspect," which debuted in 1991. "I've gone from being a police detective to the Queen. What's next, I wonder?"

Over the years, Mirren has been directed by the likes of Peter Weir ("The Mosquito Coast"), Peter Greenaway ("The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover"), Nicholas Hytner ("The Madness of King George") and Robert Altman ("Gosford Park"). Her husband, Taylor Hackford, directed her in the 1985 Mikhail Baryshnikov espionage dance (!) movie "White Nights." The couple has houses in London and Los Angeles. In 2003, Mirren was made a Dame of the British Empire. Prince Charles did the honors, at Buckingham Palace.

"Yes, the Dame-thing, I call it. It was very beautifully done."

In "The Queen," Alex Jennings plays Charles, who must deal with his mother's frosty reserve and his sons' shock and loss at the death of Diana.

"I think Charles is not treated altogether fairly in the film," observes the actress, showing more than a glimmer of sympathy for the royals, and for the man who gave her the Dame-thing.

"Not by Alex Jennings, he really tried to bring an emotional truth to the character. (But) I think he's a much more substantial person than we show... . I think the issues that he involves himself in are completely admirable, although, admittedly he does it in a slightly Marie Antoinette-ish way."

"The Queen's" director, Frears, interviewed separately, marveled at his leading lady. "She's great. She's such a bright woman. She's got real balls ... I mean, the truth is it must have taken her a lot of courage to play the Queen."

How so?

"Well, the film has seemed to turn out well, people are responding to it, but if it hadn't ... she would just look stupid. We all would have looked stupid."

Frears, who not-so-jokingly says his film is about mothers and motherhood, puts Mirren in a class with Judi Dench (another Dame) and Vanessa Redgrave, daunting talents of stage and screen.

"You know, England is full of these rather extraordinary women -- Judi, Vanessa, Helen. That's what `The Queen' is about, really, these women ... They have the same qualities ... Just rolling your sleeves up, getting on with it, doing the work."

Told of Frears' comment -- the one about having testes -- Mirren pauses, assesses, responds.

"Well, yes, I do," she quips. And then she acknowledges that if "The Queen" hadn't come out right, well ...

"I don't think I would have been open to ridicule so much as a nasty feeling of distastefulness. You have to trust that the tone would be right. And I don't think any of us really, really knew what that would be. Is it going to be comedic? Is it going to be satiric? Is it going to be critical? ...

"But the one thing which is true, in all my now-quite-a-few-years of working in film, is that if it's on the page it will be on the screen. And what's on the page usually is on the screen. If it's a bit naff on the page, it'll be a bit naff on the screen. And if it's great on the page, it's got a great chance of being good on the screen.

"And this was great on the page."

Having so wholly inhabited the reigning monarch, studying the books and news clips -- keying in, especially, on archival footage of the teenage Elizabeth -- does Mirren imagine that the subject of her portrayal is curious to see the movie?

"Well, I don't know. I wouldn't be able to resist seeing it," she reflects. "The film's had an enormous amount of attention for the past two weeks in England. You haven't been able to open a newspaper without someone referring to the film in some way or other. I'm not talking about on the entertainment pages, (but) on the news pages ...

"So I can't imagine that she would be able to resist, especially as the word has been very positive. I think if everyone had said this is an appalling piece of crap, it would be easy not to see it.

"But you know, I'm not her."

She isn't? Helen Mirren is Her Majesty, no doubt about it.

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