THE ROYAL TREATMENT

There are no sure things in Hollywood, but if Helen Mirren doesn’t earn her third Academy Award nomination for her title role in “The Queen,” there ought to be a royal investigation.

It’s hard to imagine the film even having been made without Mirren. “The Queen” revisits England’s reigning family in the two weeks following the death of Princess Diana nine years ago and Mirren’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II is nothing short of miraculous, representing by far the best depiction of a contemporary public figure in recent memory.

And that’s precisely the case, as Mirren told a packed audience at a recent Cinema Society screening. Producer Andy Harries and the actress were working together on a British TV series “Prime Suspect” when Harries saw something that stopped him in his tracks.

“I’d come in early so I could meet the cast and crew as they arrived, and Andy was watching this process,” Mirren recalled. “He looked at me and thought, ‘My God, they’re approaching her just like the Queen, coming up in a deferential way. And she looks a bit like the Queen.’ That’s when he decided to do the film.”

While Mirren bears some resemblance to the monarch, her process of transformation was still a painstaking and long process. The actress spent myriad weeks watching reels of film and TV footage, reading books and looking at official portraits of Elizabeth.

“The impersonation aspect is very important,” Mirren said. “You can’t go on screen as the queen and not look and sound like her; you’ve got to get those elements as right as you possibly can.”

But merely imitating wasn’t going nearly far enough. To get inside of the monarch – which would be necessary to find that delicate balance the filmmakers wanted to create in examining the thought process during one of the most difficult periods in Elizabeth’s life – required extra effort and a lot of historical research.

“Where does she come from?” Mirren wondered. “I found myself drawn to the Queen as a very young girl, before she knew she was going to be Queen, before she became that iconic person we are all so familiar with. I thought that was the route into the real center of that human.”

Mirren found a tape of the young then princess emerging from a car to greet some dignitaries, and there was a moment that provided the actress with a deep insight into Elizabeth’s character.

“It’s the way she gets out of the car and walks forward and puts her hand out to this tall man she’s greeting,” Mirren says. “She does it with such a lack of vanity, no smirking, no ‘Aren’t I cute, I’m a princess.’ None of that at all. It’s just ‘I’ve got to do this properly, as best as I can.’ She had that incredible sense of duty, of doing it the right way even as a little girl.”

The struggle between the Queen’s assessment of proper British behavior and the desire of her subjects to see her grieve in public over Diana’s death that defines much of the action in the film. Her sorrow occurs amidst the new election of Prime Minister Tony Blair (played by Michael Sheen), who attempts to convince Elizabeth that her distance is not making the English people’s heart grow fonder. That adherence to protocol has made some characterize the Queen as repressed, but Mirren doesn’t agree.

“I don’t think that’s true at all,” she says. “She’s a woman full of emotion and depth, but she’s self-controlled. There’s a massive difference. It’s not neurotic.”

Conveying that delicate nuance to the audience was one of the actress’s greatest challenges, Mirren said.

“She has that incredibly composed exterior, but there’s always that tension working away inside of her,” she explains. “And it does come out just in the tiniest little movements that I tried to bring in to the look.”

Indeed, although she said she would never have characterized herself as a monarchist before taking the role, Mirren found herself inexplicably drawn to Elizabeth as the research and filming went on.

“I slowly fell in love with her,” she said. “Absolutely, I love her. I think she’s fabulous…. She’s intrinsically absolutely wedded to her role as monarch, but I tried to extricate the human being from the institution. When you do that you finish up with a person with great decency, honesty, stoicism and perhaps a lack of imagination that’s protected her in many ways. A good person. Ultimately, if you have to have a queen, she’s not such a bad one.”

As to what Elizabeth herself might think of her portrayal, Mirren demurred.

“Of course I have no idea,” she says. “And I doubt I ever will because they hold themselves completely above all that. (But) as I read in one of the books I used for research, I think the Queen would say, ‘Yes, well, that could have been worse.’”

Two Tickets to Tibet, Layover In Cohen-ville

This fortnight, travel twice to Tibet with a stopover in the comparably contemplative world of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, courtesy the UCSB Film Series. “Mountain Patrol,” a winner at the Berlin and Tokyo film festivals and Grand Jury prize nominee at Sundance, is a documentary-style fictional saga of a volunteer civilian troupe that strives to protect the Tibetan antelope from poachers who have dwindled the endangered animal’s numbers from 1 million to fewer than 10,000 in less than 20 years (October 12). “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” examines the veteran, little-known singer-songwriter’s influence on such rock powerhouses as U2 and Rufus Wainwright, interspersing interviews with songs from Cohen’s often haunting and sullen catalogue (October 18). A re-edited, digitally restored version of “Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy” – a film the Dalai Lama called “highly accomplished about our culture” – restores the insightful look at the sacred journey of the Tibetan way of life to its intended sequence (October 25).

The Ojai Film Festival remains just a three-and-a-half-day event, but the fledgling fest hits its stride in its seventh year with a well-earned tribute to cinematographer László Kovács. Films unspool at three locations around the charming downtown area of the mountain village, with titles including “The Cave of the Yellow Dog” by the director of “The Story of the Weeping Camel,” and “Into the Fire,” a documentary tribute to small-town volunteer fire departments from Oscar and Emmy winner Bill Couturié, with music by Springsteen and Dylan. Get the complete schedule online at ojaifilmfestival.com or call 640-1947.

Director Robert Greenwald presents his latest documentary “Iraq for Sale,” which delves into private profiteering during the ongoing Iraq war. Screening perhaps appropriately on Friday the 13th at the Marjorie Luke Theatre, the viewing coincides with “Patriotism over Profit” home and advocacy groups showing of the film around the country, although this event is one of the few that Greenwald will attend to answer questions and discuss the issues after the movie ends. Call 886-1080 for details.