The Royal Treatment; in 'The Queen,' Helen Mirren Is Sublime as Princess Di's Distant Mother-in-Law
Byline: Barbara Kantrowitz
When Helen Mirren was growing up in postwar London, millions of Britons revered the royal family. Mirren's parents were not among them. "They didn't like the class system, and the royal family is the pinnacle of the class system," she says. "I was brought up very antimonarchist." Mirren recalls being "a bit cheeky" herself about the royals in her younger days: "I was a little uppity about why the queen won't smile. 'Does it hurt her to smile? Isn't that what she's there for?' "
Mirren has since tried the crown on twice. Just a month after winning an Emmy for her lusty turn as Elizabeth I on HBO, Mirren's nuanced performance as Elizabeth II has won her the best-actress award at the Venice Film Festival--and made her a top Oscar contender. In Stephen Frears's marvelous, and surprisingly intimate, new movie "The Queen," she plays Elizabeth II in the days after Diana's shocking death on Aug. 30, 1997. It was a week when Her Majesty seemed strikingly out of touch with not just her people and her new prime minister, Tony Blair, but with the entire planet. Despite an international frenzy of mourning over "the people's princess," the queen hunkered down at her summer retreat in Balmoral, Scotland, unwilling to shed a single public tear over the death of her former daughter-in-law. Millions of Britons were asking the questions Mirren had posed as a girl: Does it hurt her to show a little emotion? Isn't that what she's there for?
To play Elizabeth II, the actress immersed herself in the monarch's psychological world. "I watched a lot of film, read all the books I could," she says. "The most valuable was written by Crawfie [Marion Crawford], who was their nanny and also their teacher, the woman in charge of Elizabeth and Margaret from when they were little kids. I found myself drawn toward the young Elizabeth, the person she was before she was queen." Mirren was also struck by 20 or so seconds of film shot when Elizabeth was 12. "She's coming out of a car and she's got her little socks on and her little coat with a velvet collar and gloves. She's meeting a dignitary and she puts her hand out. She doesn't smirk, she doesn't wriggle, she doesn't look around at the cameras. She does what she has to do as well as she pos-sibly can. …