The Siegel Column

Helen Mirren Gives a Royal Performance in The Queen

The Film Society of Lincoln Center could not be a more cinematic bunch. It also happens that they are a quality bunch. That's why, no matter how much the Film Society's premiere event, The New York Film Festival, tries to stress its visual arts, you can always figure that theater folk will make their presence felt, precisely because quality is job one. The proof is in tonight's opening night movie of the 44th Annual New York Film Festival: The Queen, starring the Tony and Olivier-nominated Helen Mirren in a performance that is being touted as an Oscar nomination shoe-in. Furthermore, the movie is jam-packed with British actors with extensive stage credits such as Michael Sheen who plays Tony Blair, Sylvia Syms who plays the Queen Mother, Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, and many others.

Stage-trained British director Stephen Frears brings a subtlety to this project befitting the reserve of the royals. It is, after all, the story of the Queen's reaction to the death of Princess Diana - her initial recoiling from publicity – that put the institution of the monarchy itself under fire. Helen Mirren must play a character who shows nothing, but who feels deeply. She has the supreme challenge of expressing herself to us but not to the other characters in her scenes. With the help of discreet close-ups and artful minimalism worthy of Anthony Hopkins, Mirren gives an astonishing and deeply moving performance.

The film is an eye-opening look behind the doors of Buckingham Palace, presenting the Royal Family as real people, with real problems. As figurehead leaders, the one thing that becomes quickly clear is how stunningly out-of-touch they are with their people. Tony Blair had just been elected Prime Minister when Diana died and many still believe that he was at his finest in dealing with the country's grief at her loss. This movie might well help the beleaguered PM regain some of his long-lost popularity at home; he comes off very well in the film. So, too, does Prince Charles. And finally, so does the Queen. There is a crowd scene near the end of the movie involving a little girl and a bouquet of flowers that turns from funny to misty-eyed poignancy in an instant. It's a precious moment in a lovely and satisfying movie.

The Queen opens commercially next Friday but its opening of the Festival marks the real start of the Fall film season in which we finally get to see some serious, well-made movies, some of which will have played the NY Film Festival, such as the much anticipated Little Children that stars our very own Patrick Wilson, and Alain Resnais' adaptation of playwright Alan Ayckbourn's Private Fears in Public Places. In other words, the mix of high end cinema and folks from the stage will likely bring us some of this season's best movies.

Heads-up on a composer you should know

Some people have concept albums. Deborah Abramson has Birdland, where this up-and-coming composer – a protégé of the iconic William Finn – will present her music on Monday, October 2 at 7 pm. Her lyricists include William Finn himself, as well as Rachel Sheinkin (Spelling Bee), and several other notables. On the performing front, Abramson will have some high-powered help, as well, with performers such as Manoel Felciano (Sweeney Todd), Megan Lawrence (The Pajama Game), Sally Wilfert (Assassins), Michael Winther (Songs From an Unmade Bed), in addition to some surprises.

So, who is this Deborah Abramson, you ask? Her composing credits include Travels With My Discontent (Barrington Stage Company), Songs of Innocence and Experience (with William Finn), Marco Polo (with Peter Mills), and Seasick (with Judson Pearce Morgan). She has worked on and Off-Broadway as a musical director/associate musical director on such high profile shows as Bernarda Alba, Dessa Rose, James Joyce's The Dead and My Life with Albertine.

The Songs of Deborah Abramson is part of the Broadway at Birdland series that is booked by Jim Caruso, who has consistently been giving some of Broadway's hottest performers their chance to put on their own shows. For instance, Stephanie J. Block made her cabaret debut under Caruso's guidance, as did Julia Murney, the latter returning to Birdland in later October. And by the way, Caruso's wildly popular Cast Party begins right after Abramson's show is over. That's quite the double-header.

Barbara and Scott Siegel