Helen Mirren has been appearing in motion pictures for nearly 20 years, ever since she made “Age of Consent” with James Mason in Australia in 1969.
From the start her most conspicuous successes have been in portraying women in whom the sexual fires are preceived to burn hot, whether or not their society lets the women do anything about them. When society disapproves too strongly of a woman who has gone in uninhibited pursuit of heart’s desire, the results can be tragic, as they were for Alma Rattenbury, the woman Mirren plays in “Cause Celebre,” a two-part drama commencing tonight on the PBS “Mystery!” series (KCET Channel 28 at 9 p.m., concluding next Thursday at the same hour). It is adapted from a play Sir Terence Rattigan wrote about a murder case that scandalized Britain in 1935. It is another fine Mirren performance, intense but not theatrical, moving and saddening in its portrayal of a woman at once strong-willed and vulnerable, foolish and oddly noble. “Alma Rattenbury’s own crime,” Mirren said over a lunch here not long ago, “was only in looking for, accepting and enjoying love. But that was unacceptable. The sexuality of women is unacceptable to the society unless it is controlled.”
Mrs. Rattenbury, then 38, was having an affair with the 18- year-old chauffeur-handyman she and her ailing husband, who was 60, had hired. (The want ad survives: “Willing lad, 14-18, for housework; Scout-trained preferred.”) The setting was seaside Bournemouth. “It was very middle-class,” Mirren says. “Still is. Very wealthy but not in a Beverly Hills sense. Just solid English middle class. Entrenched.” Within Bournemouth’s and the country’s prevailing mores, you did not bed down with a man so much younger, most particularly one from an inferior social class. (D. H. Lawrence did not write “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in a social vacuum.) “It was only a tiny house at 5, Manorhouse Road, but there were emotions inside it on a Shakespearean scale. Alma was crucified in the press,” Mirren says. “Apparently everyone who knew her loved her and said she was generous and full of life.” She and her husband, an architect, were both Canadians who had settled in England. It was said she had entertained the troops as a musician in World War I and been cited for heroism.
“But she was vilified. What she’d done–falling in love with the boy–was somehow threatening to both men and women. You never know what’s in store for you, do you?” Mirren asks. “George may be knocking at your door.” George Bowman was the name Rattigan gave the boy in his play. The real George was sentenced to hang. Alma had refused to testify against him and, a few days after the trial, Alma stabbed herself to death. George’s sentence was subsequently commuted to life in prison and he served seven years. “The house, the Villa Madeira, is still there,” Mirren says. It’s been redecorated but it’s still essentially the same. The name is gone but the occasional tourist still wanders by for a look. The woman who’s lived there for years didn’t know about the crime when she bought it. It’s quite tiny; we had to make the set a bit larger or there’d have been no room for the camera.”
When the production company was shooting in Bournemouth in 1987, George was still there, too, living in the same house where he was living with his parents when he went to work for the Rattenburys. He had been quietly married for years and would not discuss the case. Mirren didn’t meet him. In her most recent stage outing Mirren played yet another woman who ran counter to society’s rules, Emma Bovary. Edna O’Brien wrote an impressionist interpretation of the Flaubert novel, “Madame Bovary” that Mirren performed at the ambitious Watford Palace Theatre in a London suburb. She played another free-spirited woman in another doomed love affair in the recent film “Pascali’s Island,” with Ben Kingsley and Charles Dance. She and Dance had a nude sea-bathing sequence that, while photographed discreetly from a cliff overlooking a bay on a Greek island, nevertheless gave her some anxious moments. She had done a nude scene in “Age of Consent,” more startling in 1969 than now, but it never gets easy.
“Then I realized there were 500 vacationers sun-bathing totally naked on the next beach a few hundred feet away and I said, ‘What am I nervous about?’ ” (“Pascali’s Island” is a curious film, impeccably made and acted, admirably atmospheric, its emotions muted until a last burst of melodrama.) “You sometimes do a film when you can’t tell why anyone would want to see,” Mirren says, “but then you see it and you understand completely what the film maker saw in it. In that one there was a very English kind of distancing from the emotions. Americans find that sort of thing incomprehensible. They like to jump in and wallow in the emotions.” Mirren has mixed emotions about emotions. “I’m tired of enigma,” she says. “I liked the woman in ‘Cause Celebre.’ There was nothing enigmatic about her.”
Enigmatic no, tragically foolhardy yes. The thing about sexual fires is that they spread uncontrollably. George went out of control and Alma paid the price. Mirren keeps proving in her roles that the woman usually does.