LURE OF THE SIREN
Helen Mirren, at 69, is being offered better roles now than when she was a young actress. She reveals the secret to her longevity to
HELEN Mirren greets me with a naughty chuckle before I’m even through the door. “Have you seen it? Did you hate it? Ha ha ha! Don’t worry, you can tell me!” she says, referring to her latest movie, The Hundred-Foot Journey. The film is a food-based melodrama, directed by Chocolat’s Lasse Hallstrom, that features Mirren as the icy French proprietor of a Michelinstarred restaurant, a woman whose life is seemingly up-ended when an Indian restaurateur ( Om Puri) decides to open shop right across the street. It has been mauled by critics, yet is doing well with “real” audiences.
“Certainly the vibe I’m getting, and I don’t think I’m mistaken, is that people are genuinely enjoying this film,” Mirren says, before asking me again for my opinion.
I tell her, diplomatically, that I am aware of the director’s oeuvre and thus knew exactly what to expect (imagine Chocolat, then replace the chocolate with truffles and curry, and add in a bit of shouting).
I suggest instead that the most interesting scene is the moment when fiery young chef Hassan (Manish Dayal) makes an omelet with Mirren’s Madame Mallory. His hands are bandaged (don’t ask) so she needs to help. He orders her. She takes instruction. Silently, the pair brushes against each other. Eggs are beaten. Tension crackles. Finally, she eats his omelet — and groans aloud. It is, clearly, a sublimated sex scene. “Yes!” says Mirren today, clapping her hands and hooting. “I never thought of that, but, yes, it’s true. I love it.”
It’s also true that after this one scene it be- comes more difficult to accept the burgeoning screen romance between Mirren’s Mallory and Puri’s wizened antagonist — part of you is always screaming out, “Why is she with this old dude? She should be banging the young guy with the omelet!” More important, it’s illustrative of the essential truth about Mirren, 69- year-old Oscar-winner, BAFTA fellowship recipient, dame and occasional queen: namely, she is the most singular actress working in film today. Think about it. Very few male actors are strong enough to match her on screen. From the housekeeper in Gosford Park to the assassin in Shadow Boxer to the editor in State of Play and a series of queens and Prime Suspect appearances, she is always a formidable, often solitary presence. (Her nearest male equivalent is, perhaps, Clint Eastwood.) When they do pair her up with a male co-star it has to be a giant of an actor, such as Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock or Christopher Plummer in The Last Station.
We talk about her singularity today and she says that it goes back to 1980 and The Long Good Friday, and how she was determined to make something substantial out of a tokenistic role as the gangster’s moll.
“I must’ve been such a pain in the butt, so annoying,” she says. “Because I walked in on day one of shooting and said, ‘Right. I’ve rewritten my scene, and I’ve jigged it all around to make her a stronger character.’ But that was my one condition of doing the film, so I stuck with it, and it made the movie better.”
Then, of course, there’s sexuality. An explosive issue for Mirren: she has always lived along Hundred-Foot Journey;
The Long Good Friday
Helen Mirren as Madame Mallory in
and, below, in