I always wonder if writers know that a particular character is going to be excellent on screen. I suppose with the obvious ones like Blanche DuBois, Lady Macbeth, Lavinia are obviously something special even as we read. But supporting ones are tougher to gauge. I never realised the power of Honey until I saw Sandy Dennis’ chilling portrayal and even last year I never thought Helen would be so important until Rosamund did her work. It’s something I love in an actor – when they take something slight and turn it into brilliant. Has anyone done it more brilliantly than she...? – spoilers ahead…
#9 Helen Mirren in Gosford Park (2001)
Sometimes I think that Gosford Park is a movie that must be watched thrice; the first time to set the pace and understand the story, the second time to see the clues thrown our way and the third time to piece it all together. I suppose that that’s a reason that it’s not as widely appreciated since no one feels they should have to watch a film more than once. Still, regardless of how you watch and even though Gosford Park boasts so many actors doing good work (namely Kristin Scott Thomas, Ryan Philippe, Maggie Smith) Helen Mirren stands out. Like households in the era the home is not ruled by the woman of the house – Sylvia, but by the Head Maid – Mrs. Wilson. Mrs. Wilson is a woman who says little but thinks much. Her way of identifying the servants below the stairs is an excellent device. You know I get all hot and bothered when actors show extreme subtlety and Mirren is excellent doing that. Notice her first meeting with Clive Owen. When he says his name there is the slightest jolt in Mirren’s eye that’s easy to overlook but becomes obvious as we re-watch. She repeats the name tentatively and then says coolly, “Mr. Parks, below stairs you’ll be known as Mr. Stockbridge.” It’s only after the film ends we realise just how much Helen is telling us by saying nothing.
She really has a difficult role to play actually. She needs to be cold but she cannot be cold and throughout the film, even though we know she’s a bit of a hardass we never dislike her or her doubt her skill, and yet she’s never pompous about being so good. I like the moment where Kristin Scott’s Sylvia bursts in during the servants’ dinner. She’s perturbed to find out that one of her guests is a vegetarian – of course the omniscient Mrs. Wilson has already found out and addressed the situation. I love Sylvia’s response. Thank you, Mrs. Wilson – ten steps ahead as usual. It’s the tongue-in-cheek lines I love because Sylvia’s words are more accurate than even she realises. But Helen balances this by giving us glimpses of Mrs. Wilson that puzzle us – like that trip she takes to Mr. Stockbridge (Mr. Parks) room. The wistful look on her face is difficult to ignore, and even in that same aforementioned dinner gathering as Parks speaks of his childhood such subtle reactions from Mirren. What a genius. Her line readings are just excellent, she has one of the best in the film actually – “I’m the perfect servant, I have no life.” Her entire final scene with McDonald is excellent, there is no tinge of self pity, just brilliant honesty.
But what really thrusts the film forward are those final moments opposite Eileen Atkins, it changes our entire perspective of Ms Wilson and she does it with little words. That breakdown is not just for theatrics but it’s the most moving portion of the film. As she says the line “I’ve lost him. I’ve lost him.” The gravity of what we’ve seen before finally registers and it’s all for the brilliance of Helen Mirren.
Mirren was robbed on an Oscar here and it remains as my favourite performance of this genius. But what do you think of Helen here?