According to David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, she was, before the age of 30, fiery and stupendous on the British stage as Miss Julie, Cressida, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Titania, Cleopatra, and the Duchess of Malfi. More recently, she’s been about perfect in movies as various as Gosford Park, The Madness of King George, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. I’ll bet you a Jackson she wins an Oscar for The Queen, but as she’s on record calling the Academy Awards “the crème de la crème of bullshit,” an Oscar won’t do her full justice. She scored an Emmy this year for HBO’s Elizabeth and deserves another for Prime Suspect: The Final Act (PBS, Sundays, Nov. 12 and 19 at 9 p.m. ET). Would it be possible to invent a new award, call it the Dame Helen Mirren Prize for Exquisite Coolness, and give it to the exquisitely cool dame called Helen Mirren?
This is Mirren’s seventh and last go-round as Jane Tennison of the London Metropolitan Police, a cop who has now risen to the rank of detective superintendent and is plummeting to the bottom in pretty much every other respect. When we first see Tennison in Final Act, she’s waking up to an ache in her back (from having slept with a telephone between herself and the sofa) and another such disturbance between her eyes (from being a blackout drunk). She makes it to the mirror and sweeps her gray hair back from her forehead—one fast motion, like peeling a Band-Aid away—in order to direct her icy eyes at a purple bruise. It’s a typically effective and unnerving touch of the miniseries that we don’t see the lump again, that it just throbs silently behind Tennison’s bangs and in the viewer’s mind. In any case, after a morning like that, a girl needs a drink.
Tennison walks into the office—a drunk’s stiff, wide-hipped mimicry of a sober stride—to discuss, again, what she missed while she was out. A 14-year-old girl named Sallie has gone missing. The body turns up soon enough. You know how this goes: sputtering dad, blubbering mum, shady associations, sex, and lies. The particulars of the crime-drama narrative are nothing extraordinary; The Final Act, less meaty than some previous installments of Prime Suspect, is roughly on the level of an above-average episode of Law & Order. But the storytelling is so stylish and economical that this three-hour miniseries seems to accommodate half a season’s worth of emotion and incident, and Sunday’s episode ends with the best cliffhanger you ever saw—a quick succession of shocks, one shot, and Tennison’s cry for help.
Tennison’s father is dying of cancer. She herself is facing the living death of retirement. She hates her sister, the silly cow. She goes looking to transform Penny, a friend of Sallie’s, into the daughter she never had, which is equal parts poignant and pathetic. The drinking’s gotta stop, and it won’t: I thought I’d seen Tennison get really hammered, and then I saw her get really hammered. The character might have had a chance at happiness had she been a mere cliché, cardboard and hard-boiled, but Mirren went and made her as vivid as life itself. I could spend all day watching her put on a hat: In one of Mirren’s many striking scenes, Tennison is at her father’s house, drinking alone, and she opens a box containing the hat she wore as a 17-year-old bobby. She caresses it, pulls it on, smoothes her hair, fits the brim just right, juts her chin with just pride, and beams—and then her eyes fill up fast with an impossible weight. A second later, still at her dad’s, she drop the needle on an LP, and the room fills up with Dusty Springfield’s “Stay Awhile,” and Jane Tennison dances by herself, twirling even as the record skips, and the song’s still playing when she crawls into bed to pass out. The scene is heartbreaking: This is Jane’s lone moment of freedom.
Mirren’s on some amazing wavelength here, working at the height of her art. As she recently told The New Yorker’s John Lahr, “Jane’s really weird for me, because I never think about her, not for one second. … I walk out on the set and let it happen.” Detective Superintendent Tennison, you are beautifully tragic, and as Dusty Springfield says, I hate to see you go.