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Thursday, Dec. 21, 2006 01:47 am

Queen Helen

Mirren rules as Elizabeth -- and in everything else she does

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Helen Mirren appears to be headed for her first Oscar, for her role as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. So far she has swept the critics’ awards for her introspective performance of the stoic queen. In a role that forbids the open expression of emotion, Mirren miraculously conveys all we need to know about Elizabeth. The Queen offers an intimate view of the British royal family at a time of great crisis. The film is jump-started with the election of Prime Minister Tony Blair, which is quickly followed by the death of Princess Diana. Mirren brings a hint of likability to this very cold and aloof woman who is clearly out of touch with the feelings of her subjects. If Mirren wins the Oscar, it will be well deserved. Although Mirren has had a long and productive career, her name is not well known on this side of the Atlantic. Mirren’s movie debut was in the oddity Herostratus (1967), and it was the first of many quirky film choices. Sometimes they were good, as with Ken Russell’s demented artist biography Savage Messiah (1972) and Lindsay Anderson’s astounding O Lucky Man! (1973), and occasionally they were questionable, as with the notorious Caligula (1979). She also appeared in cult favorites The Long Good Friday (1980) and Excalibur (1981). Mirren was probably first noticed by American audiences as the Soviet cosmonaut in 2010 (1984), the misguided attempt to explain the ambiguities of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Mirren served her role well in a movie that should have never existed.

Mirren’s most controversial good film is without a doubt The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), in which the actress portrays the wife of a brutish gangster and cheats on him under his nose during their nightly visits to a lavish restaurant. Be warned: Peter Greenaway’s film is a shocker. Mirren is a famous horticulturist who nurtures the gardening talents of a group of prisoners at a minimum-security prison in Greenfingers (2000). This bit of fluff would be hard to believe if it wasn’t based on a true story. In a far better fact-based film, Mirren leads a group of older British ladies who pose nude for a fundraising calendar in Calendar Girls (2003). Mirren is the suffering wife of a kidnap victim (Robert Redford) in The Clearing (2004). Normally this would be a thankless role, but Mirren’s character is the most interesting in the film. Mirren is an asset to any movie.

New on DVD this Tuesday (Dec. 26): Jackass Number Two, Factotum, The Last Kiss, The Descent, and The Black Dahlia.

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