You don’t get to be a National Treasure without putting in a lot of legwork. Helen Mirren might be a junior member in today’s triumvirate of Great British Dames – she was born a decade after Maggie Smith and Judi Dench – but her current fame, like theirs, is only the tip of a very large iceberg. It took years of work before she emerged as a fully-fledged triple threat – scooping up awards in film, TV and theatre. In fact, it’s quite sobering to be reminded of how random Mirren’s early cinema career was – peppered with misfires and cult hits that would find their audiences only many years later.
Mirren was born Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironoff in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. She’s a beguiling mix of the everyday and the exotic – working-class English on her mother’s side, aristocratic White Russian on her father’s. While she can’t speak the language, she has played Russians several times – as cosmonaut Tanya Kirbuk (Kubrick backwards, almost) in 2010, belated sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey; in White Nights, directed by her future husband Taylor Hackford; as Tolstoy’s wife Sofya in The Last Station, set in the final year of the writer (Christopher Plummer); as the eponymous Empress of Russia in the sumptuous HBO/Sky mini-series Catherine the Great (2019).
In her early theatre work she made the kind of splash nowadays reserved for starlets and pop singers, getting middle-aged male theatre critics hot under the collar with her stage work for the National Youth Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. She wasn’t conventionally beautiful, but had attitude and intelligence to spare, and a very un-English upfront allure. A profile in the Sunday Times magazine labelled her, “Stratford’s very own sex queen”. “The headline was to haunt me for the next 20 years or so,” she wrote in her autobiography.
In 1971, Michael Parkinson introduced her on his TV chat show with the quote, “She’s especially telling at projecting sluttish eroticism”. If you watch the interview now, his fixation on the young actress’s physical attributes makes you cringe – though, to be fair, it was par for the course in that era. “I think for a long time it was very hard for people to see past my physical outward appearance,” Mirren told drama critic John Lahr. “I was a blond girl with big tits. I hated that image. It was so uncomfortable for me, and distasteful.”
By 1976, when I saw her live on stage as a debauched singer in David Hare’s Teeth ‘n’ Smiles (the play wasn’t great, but she rocked – literally), she was still better known for theatre than for film, even though she’d worked with some of British cinema’s most singular talents. She played a free spirited artist’s model in Age of Consent (1969), Michael Powell’s penultimate feature; gauche as a spoilt rich girl in Savage Messiah, Ken Russell’s biopic of sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; Ralph Richardson’s daughter, another rich girl, in Lindsay Anderson’s picaresque allegory O Lucky Man!
In the late 1970s, with the British film industry at its lowest ebb, Mirren picked up some of her oddest credits. She was a horny high priestess in Tinto Brass’s porny Caligula; a call-girl in Hussy, a flawed but fascinating snapshot of London lowlife of that era; weirdest of all, a policewoman who impersonates Queen Mary and sings “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow” in The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu, the last film Peter Sellers made while still alive (there was a posthumous Pink Panther to come).
Then came a couple of films that would become more popular with age. Bob Hoskins’ Cockney gang boss in The Long Good Friday is now unthinkable without Mirren’s Roedean-educated moll, and she was slinky and enchanting as Morgana in John Boorman’s bonkers but bewitching Arthurian epic Excalibur. She played an RUC widow in Pat O’Connor’s drab but critically acclaimed Cal (she would revisit the Irish accent in 1996’s Some Mother’s Son); Harrison Ford’s earth mother wife in Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast; the wife in Peter Greenaway’s decorative but dramatically inert The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989).
Unexpectedly, it wasn’t film but TV that propelled Mirren into the premier league. The character of DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect (1991) was a world away from Miss Marple or The Gentle Touch; she was a new kind of female detective, having to face her own demons and bigotry within the force as well as investigating the crime du jour. There had been plenty of mixed-up male cops before, but never a female one of this complexity, and Tennison paved the way for the likes of Sarah Lund, Stella Gibson and Ellie Miller. Over the next 15 years, Mirren would play her six more times, adding even more depth and nuance on each occasion. Tennison earned her BAFTA and Emmys galore; it was her signature role, turned her into a household name, and helped pave the way for the latest and most illustrious act of her career.
Pauline Kael noted in 1985, “Probably no other actress can let you know as fast and economically as she can that she’s playing a distinguished and important woman.” They were prescient words, even if DCI Tennison said more than once, “Don’t call me Ma’am! I’m not the bloody Queen!” From Mirren’s first Oscar nomination, at the age of 50, for The Madness of King George’s Queen Charlotte in 1994, her parade of royalty has been unstoppable.
There were a few plebeian interludes – as the female presence in Fred Schepisi’s understated but elegant Last Orders, the tight-lipped head housekeeper in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, and as one of the no-nonsense Yorkshirewomen getting their kit off for charity in Calendar Girls.
But in the space of a single year she not only won a Primetime Emmy for her performance as Elizabeth I in the Channel 4/HBO mini-series of the same name, which tackled themes of power, personality and ageing so movingly it turned the 2007 Cate Blanchett Elizabeth: The Golden Age (sequel to the much livelier, Reine Margot-inspired Elizabeth, 1998) into a lightweight also-ran. She also collected every award that was going (Oscars, Golden Globes, BAFTAS) for her sublime performance as Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’ The Queen, written by Peter Morgan.
The performance is so subtle and uncanny I forgot it was an actress and kept thinking, “Blimey, I never realised the Queen was such a looker.” I don’t suppose we’ll ever know if Her Majesty snuck a peek at it, but if that were me, I’d be flattered. But Mirren’s portrayal goes beyond mere impersonation to dip into the essence of royalty itself, and the role of monarchy in the modern world. In 2013, she played Elizabeth II again, this time facing 60 years’ worth of Prime Ministers in the West End in Morgan’s stage play The Audience, for which she won an Olivier.
With Smith and Dench, Mirren appears to have cornered the market in female authority figures of a certain age – a type so thin on the ground in today’s cinema it it makes you wonder how many are left for actresses other than Meryl Streep. Mirren’s recent alpha-females include Russell Crowe’s editor in State of Play, a former Mossad agent sharing a guilty secret in The Debt, revisiting Shakespeare in a gender-realigned The Tempest (and reminding you that all those years in theatre have given her an unrivalled ease in delivering his dialogue); a sharp but sympathetic portrayal of Alma Reville, the power behind the director’s chair in Hitchcock.
For someone who once confessed to being lazy, Mirren’s workrate is astonishing, and she doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Last year she could be seen as an imperious French restaurateur in The Hundred-Foot Journey; this year she’s a Jewish former refugee trying to reclaim her heritage in Woman in Gold. But she also won a different set of fans for the shoot-em-up action movies RED (2010) and RED 2 (2013) , in which she showed she was no slouch at firing a machine-gun, dissolving a cadaver in acid, or sharing a Lotus Exige Coupé with Lee Byung-hun, best looking actor in the world right now.
“I’ve never been worried about getting older,” she told Amy Wilentz of More, “but I do recognize that I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve been able to keep working and working, and how cool is that?”
Except that in Mirren’s case, it’s the growing older that has been the making of her – on screen, if not in the theatre. She wasn’t the first young actress whose thespian skills have been twinned with awesome sex appeal. But there haven’t been as many who have not only accepted the changes wrought by time on the female physique, but have actively embraced them, wrinkles and all. It’s that confidence that continues to make her attractive, as much as any other physical attributes. Though I daresay those don’t hurt either.
Last week she said her great ambition was to appear in a Fast and Furious movie. Let’s hope Vin Diesel is on the case.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in July 2015.
Two years later:
And another two years after that…