LONDON — “Not to act is to act.” That line from the 1984 picture “Cal” is actually about the way that standing silently is actually a political position, but it could also be a summary of the remarkable technique of the film’s star, Helen Mirren.
Playing a grieving widow embarking upon a dangerous affair with a damaged and much younger man, it certainly didn’t hurt that from the outset of her 40-year career, Mirren has been regarded as a less-than-obscure object of desire.
But it wasn’t her abundant sexual allure that won her the best actress award at Cannes that year — a coup she repeated in 1995 with her radiantly compassionate Queen Charlotte in “The Madness of King George.”
Instead, it was the detailed depth she revealed in a role that allowed audiences to read her complex thoughts and emotions in close-up. She’s so engaging because, although she’s working hard, she never allows audiences to see the effort: You watch the character, not the actress.
Just clock what she does with reaction shots — they’re positively charged with expressive intent, nowhere more so than in all seven installments of “Prime Suspect.”
Fifteen years ago, the day after the first one aired in the U.K., casting director Michelle Guish argued that although the role was not written for her, no other British actress could have turned in so mesmerizing a performance. That was partly because no other actress of Mirren’s generation had her wealth of experience, but more because of the defining duality of her work. Yes, she had the concentrated repose of a great screen actor, but she also had dynamism bred by an equally extensive stage career.
Mirren was already famous at 20, making a splash as a notably sensual heroine of “Antony and Cleopatra” at the National Youth Theater in 1965. Indeed, she has found enough “infinite variety” in Cleopatra to play her twice more, including opposite Alan Rickman at the National in 1998, a disaster of a production redeemed solely by Mirren’s proud and coquettish queen.
That gripping contradiction is at the heart of all she does. As Natalya Petrovna, the heroine of Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country,” a role she played in London in 1994 (opposite Joseph Fiennes) and then for New York’s Roundabout Theater Company, she could whisk up the train of her costume and hurl herself comically across a chaise longue, only to reveal a breaking, love-struck heart.
Being able to convey contrasting thoughts simultaneously is seriously rare and makes her particularly good at roles requiring guile. And whenever her characters are forced to lie, she becomes mesmerizing, as in her celebrated performance in “The Duchess of Malfi” having an illicit affair beneath the jealous scrutiny of Bob Hoskins at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theater in the early ’80s. The same was true of her serenely vicious Christine Mannon in Eugene O’Neill’s epic “Mourning Becomes Electra” at the National Theater in 2002.
Her grip on audiences holds true even in lesser projects. There she is as the wife of wealthy, kidnapped Robert Redford in “The Clearing.” Other actresses would seize the opportunity to emote, putting their foot down on the “traumatized” pedal; Mirren holds back. Her measured response — underlined by an hauteur onscreen that makes her appear taller than her actual 5-foot-4 — doesn’t make the wife appear any less upset. Rather, it ties audiences to her character’s conflict as she discovers her husband is not only missing but has been having an affair. Her very stoicism becomes upsetting.
The same is true of her housekeeper in “Gosford Park.” The chilly severity of her primness is a fascinating cover for the love she has for her illegitimate son (Clive Owen) and the seething resentment she feels for his father (Michael Gambon) that causes her to poison him.
Or, dumpy and dowdy in “Last Orders,” the way she unsentimentally holds back from showing her last-ditch hope for widowed happiness with longtime friend Hoskins.
If, as seems distinctly possible after the best actress award at Venice, she wins the Oscar for “The Queen,” it will be a rare case of the prize going to the right performer for the right role. On the other hand, her extraordinary portrayal — replete with those typically unjudgmental contradictions — is really just a sustained case of what she has been doing all along: holding still, knowing the width and depth of a shot or her place onstage, and trusting her thrillingly controlled thoughts to be legible.