Do we become what we are, or are we what we become?
In the 1970s, when I was first aware of Helen Mirren, I wouldn’t have predicted the future she has made for herself. Nor, perhaps, would she. In a revealing interview she gave to Sean French in 1989, she looked back on a hoped-for future in European arthouse cinema:
What I wanted to do was to make films in France, in French. My own personal taste has been more towards European than American film. I don’t basically like American films. I think they’re fairly stupid, most of them. So I even went to the extent of renting a flat in Paris and getting an agent. But of course it was totally impractical. I mean why would anyone employ me, who couldn’t speak French very well, as opposed to some wonderful French actresses?
In the Seventies, if I’d thought about it, I would probably have imagined the 60-something Mirren dominating the British stage as a theatrical grande dame. I still think her time could be better spent, and her interpretative talents better used, on the stage than making “fairly stupid” – no, correct that, utterly stupid – Hollywood films like National Treasure: Book of Secrets or Love Ranch. In those days we used to hear the term “serious actress” a lot; Clive James applied it to Mirren in his withering review of her first encounter with Michael Parkinson. (The great and the good also used to talk about “serious music”, which meant classical music, i.e. the only music to be taken seriously.) In a way Mirren was ahead of her time in resisting the categorization implied by the term:
Journalists are always asking me, begging me, down on their knees, to say “I’m not a sex symbol, I’m a serious actress,” please say it, please say it. And I’ve always categorically refused to say that because I’ve always felt that you don’t have to talk about your work in that sense. You just do it. (Observer interview, 1989)
The peculiar impact of the early stage and TV work that I’ve discussed here came from a fearlessness in the face of contradiction and category distinctions; it lent freshness to her classic roles; even in period dress, her Shakespeare seemed to be of the moment. That could have translated into film, especially if we’d had a vibrant home-grown film industry, but it didn’t. I recall reading an interview with John Fowles in the late Seventies somewhere (was it in Isis, the Oxford student magazine?) where he said that Mirren was his personal choice to play the French Lieutenant’s Woman on screen. But the backers wouldn’t wear it, of course, it had to be a bankable American star – it had to be the mistress of funny foreign accents, it had to be Meryl Streep.
So this blog has ended up revolving two thoughts. The first is that I feel no great enthusiasm for the Mirren of 2012 with her homes in Los Angeles, London and Italy, Mirren the go-to interviewee for soundbites on every subject under the sun, purveyor of bland truisms served up for American TV stations, Mirren the red-carpet regular, to the women who congregate on the many fansites now devoted to her a poster-girl for the childless (or ‘child-free’) by choice. Doubtless the fault is mine, and the consequential loss mine too. Having failed to become, I remain what I was, still (in memory) dawdling outside the flat in Fulham I once identified after she surprisingly responded to a teenage fan by including her address in the letter.
And then there’s a thought about a thought of hers. You might call it the ‘Shakespeare in Love’ fantasy. Repeatedly she has said that Shakespeare would have written better female parts if he’d been writing for real women, not for boy-actresses. It was a sentiment echoed by Sir Harold Hobson in his famous verdict on her Lady Macbeth: “I really do regret that Shakespeare never knew Miss Mirren. We would then have had a different play.” Although in recent years she has been rarely seen in the English classics, there is one exception, and it allowed her to refashion Shakespeare in her own image. In 2010 she appeared in Julie Taymor’s film adaptation of The Tempest. In order to reclaim one of the plum roles in Shakespeare, Prospero was recast as ‘Prospera’. This required some rewriting of the protagonist’s backstory. We learn that the original Duke of Milan had encouraged his wife’s interest in magic, but when he died and left Milan to her, her brother Antonio spread rumours that she was a witch and had her banished. As the editors of the latest Arden edition observe, “this intriguing shift makes Prospera, Duchess of Milan, more clearly an alter ego of Sycorax” and “Shakespeare’s emphasis on confinement broadened to include the patriarchal entrapment of women”. I like this movie a lot. Shot in the volcanic landscape of Hawaii, it’s visually stunning, as a filmic Tempest should be. Some of the casting is strong (Ben Whishaw as Ariel, Felicity Jones as Miranda), some less so (Reeve Carney as Ferdinand, and Russell Brand as Trinculo, who’s a lot funnier in a lengthy riff included on the DVD extras than he is in the film). But, bestriding the action, the stand-outs are Djimon Hounsou, in a superbly physical performance as Caliban, and Mirren herself, alternating solicitude for her daughter with the calm exercise of power over her enemies.
The question that hung in the air as Beth Gibbons sang the play’s Epilogue over the end-credits was this: couldn’t one find a fresh take on the play without having to rewrite it? What if Prospero’s magic powers include gender-bending? He might live on the island as a woman, Teiresias-like, only reverting to his old self when he reveals himself to the courtiers at the end: “I will discase me and myself present | As I was sometime Milan” (5.1.85-6). Until she encounters the “brave new world” of the shipwrecked gentry, Miranda has no fixed concept of manhood, having only her father and Caliban as examples.
Of the making of books about Shakespeare there is no end, and an ever-fruitful topic is the gender assumptions that underlie the plays and poems. Are they the product of an androgynous sensibility – in which case Mirren-style revisionism is wide of the mark – or do they proceed from a benighted Elizabethan mindset which needs to be corrected for the twenty-first century? One day I may add to the termite mound of Shakespearean criticism by writing about these things, but for the moment let your indulgence set me free.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please.
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please.
Sean French, “The tabloids’ thespian”, Observer, 27 August 1989
Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T Vaughan, “Introduction” to The Tempest, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd series, revised edn (2011)