If Helen Mirren, this year’s SBIFF honoree for outstanding performance, also wins the 2007 Oscar for best actress, it will be in no small measure due to what is surely the year’s most peculiar action sequence. It occurs about halfway through The Queen, when Elizabeth II leaves the castle at Balmoral in Scotland and goes off for a long drive in the country alone. Her Majesty’s royally ancient and utilitarian Land Rover ends up stuck in a riverbed. For a long moment we are alone with the queen in what feels like real time. As she wades through the rocky water in her Wellington Boots, the queen’s stoic expression fills and then overflows with pent-up sadness and repressed grief.
Although there is no real suspense to the scene — the queen gets help promptly, and she is never in danger — there is one big surprise. At the height of what seems like her greatest solitude, an extraordinary visitor makes the film’s most dramatic entrance. As the queen sits morosely on a rock, an elegant stag with full 14-point antlers wanders into view, causing Her suddenly emotionally available Majesty to shed one heartbreaking tear. It’s a great, uncanny moment, but did it happen? Screenwriter Peter Morgan admitted the stag was his invention, saying, “That has no basis in reality, no. [The royal family] did go shooting the day after Diana’s death. But actually I think it was grouse they hunted. I chose to make it stalking [deer] because that echoed the themes I was more interested in for this piece.”
Helen Mirren was close-lipped about the meaning of the stag when I asked if she imagined what the queen was thinking at that point, saying, “There’s no answering that question, ‘What does the stag mean?’ because it functions so perfectly as a symbol. There was something specific in fact that I held as my internal dynamic for the scene, and it was something we talked about on set, so I know it was remarkably close to what Peter Morgan, the screenwriter, had in mind. But that’s all I can tell you because it should remain open to the interpretation of the audience.”
Her response is emblematic of Mirren’s entire approach to this role, which involves a cunning blend of knowledge and reticence. Though she herself seems to prefer slightly the more conventionally dramatic turn she made earlier this year as Elizabeth I — calling it “perhaps my finest performance” — it is for her portrayal of the living monarch that Mirren is being recognized, not only here in Santa Barbara on Friday night, but throughout the world with such honors as the Golden Globe award, and very likely the Oscar.
With the aid of Peter Morgan’s extraordinary script, Stephen Frears’s expert direction, and a wonderful supporting cast, Mirren has taken the role of Elizabeth II into truly new territory. In it, she unites Shakespeare’s interest in mature and powerful women with the skill and intellect of a biographer. Unusually, the lens through which we see Mirren’s hard-won understanding of her subject is not the prose of an observant scribe but rather the haunting words, gestures, and facial expressions of a veteran performer. Her formidable understanding — not only of the queen herself, but of the profound connection between the British people and their monarchs — lingers throughout this beautiful film somewhere in her eyes; they seem to say that, as with the meaning of the stag, she knows, but she won’t necessarily tell.
Mirren, enjoying one of the most successful careers of any contemporary actress, clearly relishes the kind of probing discussion of character and motive that such symbolism elicits. When asked about the frequent wordplays and general delight in confusing her highness the great actress with Her Royal Highness the Queen, she is adamant about retaining a strong distinction. “There is a massive difference, and a huge essential point to be made about it, which is this: The queen has no choice in the matter. Celebrities of all kinds, and certainly actors, have always done something at some point to court the attention of the public, and with monarchs this is just never the case. Monarchs step into a kind of gilded cage with no choice in the matter, and the mindset they inherit is, I think, nearly incomprehensible to outsiders. The great advantage to me of playing these two historical figures, Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, one after another is that I got to spend quite a lot of time puzzling out the thought of what that kind of arbitrary and absolute responsibility could mean to a person.”
When Morgan accepted his Golden Globe for best screenplay, he said, “You have to believe that public protests count for something,” emphasizing the film’s message that it is sometimes necessary to speak truth to power, and thus put the people in the role of the hero. Mirren’s acceptance speech that night took nearly the opposite tack, acknowledging instead the queen’s courage and personal sacrifice. When I asked her which story was the true one — “brave lone woman triumphs under pressure” or “popular uprising gets the attention of reluctant monarch,” she insisted, “Both are possible, and I think that, difficult as this may be to accept, both are true. The British are certainly respectful enough of the queen, but the role she plays inevitably provokes an emotional response from them. In this case, that emotional response had a powerful impact on her, and caused her to feel threatened in her authority and in their hearts. This is part of being queen — caring a lot about whether or not the people love you.”
As for the meaning of that symbolic stag, invented by Morgan to bring a Shakespearean universality to the film, it may in fact be the place where these extremes of interpretation meet. Asked about it in an interview with Steve Daly of Entertainment Weekly, Morgan yielded for a moment and let the secret of the symbol slip. “For me, the stag was the queen. When she sheds a tear over it, it’s an expression of self-sympathy and self-recognition, of a fellow animal in jeopardy.”
Like the queen herself, the stag’s uneasy head wears a crown that is at once its glory and its burden. When we later see its severed antlers hung on the wall of a neighboring estate, we are meant to feel that, like Diana and, in a different way, her mother-in-law, the animal has been pursued beyond its extraordinary endurance. Helen Mirren’s fine performance in this role catches the moment when that strange hunt concludes, and the result is a memorable portrayal that will no doubt go on earning her praise and distinction for many years.