O Lucky Man! (1973)
The Role: Patricia
Why It’s The Best: A role that very nearly didn’t happen. Star Malcolm McDowell penned the first draft of this fantasy-infused drama about capitalist society, and was initially meant to appear opposite horror actress Fiona Lewis.
However she was replaced (nobody’s saying why, but it’s clear she was fired) partway through production by Mirren. McDowell was a lucky man, indeed.
Iconic Moment: Regal and arty, Mirren shows up painting a mural on a London rooftop, then shares a passionate smooch with her co-star . Sexy screen siren potential? Ten out of ten.
Helen Says: “That is a wonderful film, and very much locked in its era in terms of the music and everything.
In terms of what it was saying about the world, it was very advanced, very ahead of its time. Lindsay had an extraordinary personality… maybe I just attract these weird directors. They seem to be the only ones who like me.”
The Long Good Friday (1980)
The Role: Victoria
Why It’s The Best: Mirren famously battled with her director, John Mackenzie, to make her character more multi-dimensional in this gangland thriller.
It’s a good thing that she did, the actress adding layers to ‘factory installed girlfriend’ Victoria that otherwise wouldn’t have been there.
Iconic Moment: Swathed in fur, Victoria finds herself the object of Jeff’s affections , and cheekily plays up to it. “I want to lick every inch of you.” Wowers.
Helen Says: “It was one of those scripts that just leapt off the page at you, where you went, ‘God! This is just fantastic!’ The one thing that was a problem, was my character Victoria, who was a terrible character, as written.
“I became a real thorn in the side of our director, John Mackenzie, in trying to flesh her out. But Bob Hoskins was incredibly supportive, which was great. So I was constantly trying to pull the character into the story.
“I’m glad that I made such a fuss about it, because I think it enriched the film. You’ve got to have something you can hold your head up about later on in life. But I was a bit of a pain for John, I think.”
The Role: Morgana
Why It’s The Best: Campier than a low-budget summer holiday in Cornwall, Excalibur is as over-the-top as they come, but saved by stellar visuals and crafty turns by Mirren and co.
The actress almost turned down the role when she learned Nicol Williamson would be playing Merlin – they’d butted heads a year before during a stage play.
Iconic Moment: A pregnant Morgana gives birth as lightning scars the night sky.
Helen Says: “That was tricky on the page, actually. That one didn’t leap off the page. It was quite difficult to follow and I think it was very much to John Boorman’s credit that he crafted this very magical world out of what could have been a real mess!
“Some of those scenes when we read them during rehearsal sounded absolutely embarrassing! We were all like, ‘My God, how can we say these lines?’ [ laughs ] But with all the other elements, it all started falling into place, especially the lighting and the beauty of the film.”
The Role: Marcella
Why It’s The Best: Mirren received her first BAFTA nomination for this drama based on Bernard MacLaverty’s novella, then went on to win Best Actress at Cannes.
She plays Marcella, the wife of a RUC member who’s murdered. Grieving her loss, she falls for Cal, a young man who had a hand in her husband’s death.
Iconic Moment: The past and the present collide, as Marcella and Cal make love – only for Cal to relive the moment when he helped kill Marcella’s husband.
Helen Says: “I learned I had been given the best Actress award in Cannes for Cal . I’d known the film was playing there, for I had been invited to go, but the film company were not prepared to pay my way from LA and I didn’t want to pay for myself.
"When news of the award came through they tried to get me there, but by then it was too late. Even with a private plane I could not have made it in time, so I missed a moment of glory.”
White Nights (1985)
The Role: Galina Ivanova
Why It’s The Best: After an unfortunate misstep with sci-fi sequel 2010 , Mirren’s back on form playing a former ballerina who is still a member of the Soviet Union, and the former lover of an African-American tap dancer.
Iconic Moment: Mirren drops the dulcet British tones in favour of a Russian accent , confronting fellow dancer Nikolai in a practice room.
Helen Says: “I feel as though it took me forever to learn how to act for the screen. Even now, I am still not sure that I have cracked it.
"When I was starting out, I could not look at myself, it made me too self-conscious. The way your mouth moves, the sound of your voice, the set of your head from behind, and a million other things completely take you by surprise.
"It’s a very uncomfortable feeling. My acting then was so ‘rabbit in the headlights’ I preferred not to look at it unless absolutely necessary.”
The Mosquito Coast (1986)
The Role: Mother Fox
Why It’s The Best: It’s basically The Shining in the jungle. Mirren plays the matriarch of a family who decide to leave their busy city lives behind and seek a simpler existence in the jungle paradise of Central America.
However, hubbie Harrison Ford’s behaviour grows more erratic by the day.
Iconic Moment: When the family arrive at their new home, Mother Fox is expecting a town. Instead, they find an isolated shack…
Helen Says: “When I did Mosquito Coast , I was determined to use the experience as a tool to free me. Film acting, at its best, combines a sense of utter freedom within a discipline that is highly technical and controlled.
"Finding myself in the jungles of Beliza, with another consummate technician, Harrison Ford, I decided to ignore the technical side for the time being and just learn to be as free as possible, just be, or try to be.”
Pascalis Island (1988)
The Role: Lydia Neuman
Why It’s The Best: Another Cannes entry, as Mirren stars with Ben Kingsley and Charles Dance in a 1908-set drama that follows Pascali, a spy for the Sultan who sends unread reports to Istanbul. When a British archaeologist turns up, he grows suspicious of the stranger’s motives.
Iconic Moment: “I’m not sure you’re quite as uncomplicated as you want everyone to think,” muses Lydia with a smile, trussed up in her best. That unmistakable Mirren charm and poise is ever-present.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
The Role: Georgina Spica
Why It’s The Best: Divisive and controversial, the seriously-long-title crime drama was made infamous by its violence and nudity, as well as its distinctive style and ravishing cinematography.
Mirren plays Georgina with everything she’s got. Georgina's the wife of a gangster who goes into hiding when she's caught having an affair with a bookshop owner, the latter of whom is killed and then cooked...
Iconic Moment: Any scene with Mirren dressed in seriously revealing PVC-lite outfits. Meow.
Helen Says: “It is a dangerous film. It's deep and complex and we're not skating around any issues. It's on the cutting edge, quite apart from the content.
“Look at the style of the filmmaking, the artificiality of it, the strangeness of the dialogue. I knew it was dangerous, but I didn't think it was that dangerous. You know, that X-rated thing, because that's a different kind of thing altogether."
When The Wales Came (1989)
The Role: Clemmie Jenkins
Why It’s The Best: A beautifully lensed drama, When The Whales Came was shot on the Isles of Scilly, and is as ravishing as anything else ever put on film. Including Avatar .
Iconic Moment: The on-set of World War I seriously depletes the island of its men, leaving the women to take care of business. Stirring stuff.
Where Angels Fear To Tread (1991)
The Role: Lilia Herriton
Why It’s The Best: Based on E. M. Forster’s novel, this British drama also stars a young Helena Bonham Carter in an early role.
Mirren plays Lilia, a wealthy widow who marries a younger, poorer man in Italy and resolves to stay there with him.
Iconic Moment: Tragedy strikes when a pregnant Lilia dies during childbirth.
Helen Says: “It was one of those occasions where the scheduling of two projects [Prime Suspect and Where Angels Fear To Tread] is so tight they almost overlap.
"Just to organise the script was intimidating, especially with no preparation time. On my days off in Italy I would psychologically drag myself out of turn-of-the-century Italian society into a dark contemporary world and struggle with the huge, unwieldy script.”
The Madness Of King George (1994)
The Role: Queen Charlotte
Why It’s The Best: Mirren lands her first Oscar nomination for her role in this lauded adaptation of Alan Bennett’s stageplay. It’s also the first time she’ll play a member of the royal household, before going on to play both Elizabeth I and II.
Iconic Moment: More impressive than one single moment is Mirren’s impressive array of wigs, dresses, hats and bonnets.
Helen Says: “I won again in Cannes a few years later with The Madness Of King George and again couldn’t go, this time because I was working in the theatre.
"I was always rather sad about this, remembering that first tip to Cannes and wanting my moment of triumph on the Croisette.”
The Pledge (2001)
The Role: Doctor
Why It’s The Best: Pairing up with Jack Nicholson, Mirren’s directed by Sean Penn in a police procedural that also features the talented likes of Aaron Eckhart, Patricia Clarkson and Mickey Rourke. Mirren makes a small but pivotal appearance as a doctor.
Iconic Moment: Mirren’s doctor proves key in attempting to understand the motivations of a killer who just might strike again.
Last Orders (2001)
The Role: Amy
Why It’s The Best: A communion of top British talent here, as Mirren reunites with her Long Good Friday co-star Bob Hoskins, alongside Michael Caine and Ray Winstone.
Iconic Moment: Amy says goodbye to her disabled daughter for the last time . Touching stuff.
Helen Says: “I don't normally like read-throughs, I get bored, but this was wonderful. It was very funny to see all of those actors sitting together. It was kind of moving and quite powerful.”
No Such Thing (2001)
The Role: The Boss
Why It’s The Best: More Cannes action as Hal Hartley’s film was entered into the festival in the Un Certain Regard category. Mirren makes a small but impressionable appearance as a chain-smoking, head-set-wearing boss.
Iconic Moment: “You? Who’ll make the coffee in the morning?” The Boss has issues with Beatrice going out looking for news stories. Mirren proves once and for all that she’s no slouch when it comes to stinging putdowns.
Gosford Park (2001)
The Role: Mrs Wilson
Why It’s The Best: Another wave of nominations heralded Mirren’s next offering, this period whodunit that stars the likes of Maggie Smith, Stephen Fry, Alan Bates and Michael Gambon.
Directed by Robert Altman, it was his second most commercially successful film after MASH .
Iconic Moment: “My boy… Oh, my boy.” A shocking revelation from Mrs Wilson’s history changes our perception of her entirely.
Helen Says: “Genius! Most directors basically do it the same way. They’re great, and many are great visionaries. But they basically set the scene up the same way and shoot the same way. Robert Altman is completely different.
“You never know if you’re on the screen or not, which is great, so you’ve all got to be ‘on it’ all the time. There’s no such thing as ‘having your moment’ with Altman.
“You look at your role, see that you have this big speech, show up on the set, and realise that the whole scene is about this dog running around the people in the scene, all of whom are having their big speech!”
Calendar Girls (2003)
The Role: Chris
Why It’s The Best: A feel-good classic, this breakout hit was favourably compared to The Full Monty - even by Mirren herself. The plot follows the Women’s Institute in Knapley, who decide to shed their clothes for a tasteful nude calendar and raise funds for Leukaemia Research.
Iconic Moment: The ‘girls’ strip off, only to be rudely interrupted…
Helen Says: “I was a little resistant because it was a bit ‘English’, but when I read the script... it's just so delightful, funny and moving.
“It really combines all of those elements and the fact that it was based on a true story. I was really seduced by it. Sometimes after films like The Full Monty , which did it so well, I didn't want us to look like ‘the poor woman's Full Monty ’.
“But one would aspire to go at least as far as The Full Monty which I thought was a really brilliant film.”
The Queen (2006)
The Role: Queen Elizabeth II
Why It’s The Best: Finally Mirren bags the Oscar, and deservedly so as she gets under the skin of Britain’s most recognised celebrity – yes, our Queen.
Iconic Moment: Out in the countryside, the Queen at last snatches a moment for herself to grieve as the news of Diana’s death grips the country.
Helen Says: “Sadly, I used very little makeup. I didn't spend hours in the makeup chair with all kinds of magical things being added to my face. I did very little makeup. It had more to do with the set of the face really. The set of the head, the set of the mouth.
“The voice was terribly important. The voice and the physicality, those two elements in terms of the outward appearance of the Queen. I studied a great deal of film just to watch her.”
State Of Play (2009)
The Role: Cameron Lynne
Why It’s The Best: From BBC to the big screen, this movie version of the TV serial ups the A-list cast (Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams) and grabs an on-the-rise director in the form of Kevin Macdonald. The plot follows a journalist’s investigation into the death of a Congressman’s mistress.
Iconic Moment: Boss Cameron and reporter Cal come to loggerheads – Mirren well and truly putting Russell Crowe in his place. Nice one.
Helen Says: “I love a good thriller, a good complicated story. I like things that I can’t quite grasp at first. [ It has ] all of those elements plus, I thought, a great role. That, too.
“Cameron Lynne is absolutely Crowe’s boss, how great to be Russell Crowe’s boss! I love pushing him around. [ laughs ] Except I don’t really when the camera’s not rolling.”
The Last Station (2009)
The Role: Sofya Tolstoy
Why It’s The Best: Mirren steps into the role of visionary author Leo Tolstoy’s tempestuous wife – a part that was once being primed for Meryl Streep. Garnering a fresh load of Oscar nominations, it’s a moving, engaging historical drama.
Iconic Moment: Too many to note, especially the ones in which Sofya’s anger takes hold of her tongue. Though the final scene stands out as the film’s most tear-inducing.
Helen Says: “This is one of the great women’s roles in film. Sofya is a wonderfully tempestuous and passionate person.
“I read about Sofya and read her diaries to a certain extent but in the end I was making the film that Michael wrote and based on the book by Jay Parini.
“Those were really my inspirations rather than the real person; I felt I had to interpret their work rather than try to recreate Sofya perfectly. The film is all about love - young love and old love. It shows the practicalities and disasters that love can involve. The characters were so wonderful, it was an absolute gift.”
The Role: Victoria
Why It’s The Best: She may be 65, but Helen Mirren can still kick some ass. As an ex-assassin, she stars with Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich in the comic adap, wielding all sorts of weaponry – and still managing to be lady-like while doing so. A sequel’s in the works.
Iconic Moment: During the film’s explosive climax, Victoria gets behind a machine gun and pumps her enemies full of led. Awesome.
Helen Says: “I was kind of looking for who this woman might be and then I had this flash of inspiration and Martha Stewart came into my mind, and I thought that’s who it is, Martha Stewart.
“So from that point on I based everything on Martha Stewart. The hair was Martha Stewart’s hair, the colour even and the cut, the clothes were Martha Stewart.
“Because I thought Martha Stewart combines this perfect combination of sweetness and kindness and gentleness and unbelievable efficiency with this kind of laser-like ability to concentrate and get the job done.”