Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Long Live the Queens

By Tony Buchsbaum

2006 was quite a year for Helen Mirren. First, she got to play Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII. Then she got to play Elizabeth II, mother-in-law of Diana. Even more remarkabe that her stellar performances is the fact that the awards people got it right: she deserved every single statuette she received.

In Elizabeth I, Mirren plays the queen as randy royalty who knows just what her virgin image means to her advisors and her country. Though Elizabeth isn’t a young woman, Mirren plays her as one, almost coquettishly delivering lines and all but batting her eyes seductively. She knows that sex is politics, so she keeps her cards concealed most of the time: why capitulate when a flirt will do? She's mad for the Earl of Leicester, played by Jeremy Irons with his usual dose of knowing, almost amused gravity, but she can’t marry him. It just wouldn’t do. So her game plays on, much to her hidden dismay.

Elizabeth I sparkles in every way. Its sets are sumptuous, its music score by Rob Lane is magnificent, and its costumes bring countless paintings of the queen to shimmering, staggering life.

There are moments I have watched again and again, none so much as the scene when the queen visits the troops as they await invasion. Mirren delivers a speech to raise the kingdom’s dead, and the music soars, and even the queen herself is overwhelmed with emotion.

What makes the story so satisfying, though, is that Elizabeth, far from doomed, is simply disappointed in every area of her life. Her advisors refuse to allow her to marry a French king, she herself refuses to marry Leicester, and later, his nephew, the Earl of Essex, who is just too young. He is a useful plaything meant to keep her young, but he's far from king material.

I especially loved the brutal scene where Mary Queen of Scots is beheaded; the executioner must strike twice, and it’s wincingly good fun. Elizabeth’s reaction, after forbidding her cousin’s execution, is one in a long series of scenes in which the queen becomes all but a raving lunatic. Betrayal brings that out in a person. All anyone can do is get out of her way; the queen is pissed as hell, and Mirren gets to munch on the scenery. It’s a thing to behold.

Mirren chews even more scenery, although more stoically, in The Queen, in which she portrays Great Britain’s current monarch. Here, the story picks up just as Diana has been killed in an accident in Paris, and the film is a study of how the princess’s mother-in-law closes down the royal house to allow the family to mourn in private, much to the frustration of Prime Minister Tony Blair and the rest of her subjects. (Strange. France and queens named Elizabeth don't mix well in either film.)

In a way, The Queen is one long scene of denial, and what’s amazing is how much color Mirren can wring from what is essentially a one-note woman. We don’t know much of anything about the queen except the stuff caricatures are made of, but Mirren makes her human. You may not like her, but you believe her, and that’s what makes the film unerringly great fun to watch.

Michael Sheen, as Blair, looks like a twenty-something kid who’s out of his league — and if Blair was in real life, so is Sheen here. James Cromwell plays prince Philip as a character even colder than his wife, all hard edges and absolutes. The foil he provides Mirren is subtle and complex; next to him, she seems downright ambivalent, though it’s her word the royal house follows.

Both films are now available on DVD, and both are well-worth watching. Oddly, Elizabeth I, produced as a four-hour television film, is far more movie-like than The Queen, which feels (perhaps intentionally) like a TV movie. How wonderful, though, to have Helen Mirren in both films, unintentionally painting echoes and shadows of each queen into the other, portraying conflicted women who both embrace and rebuff their times and their people.

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