Helen_Mirren_headshot%201%20-%20hi%20res.jpgIf 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

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

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.


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