Anatomy of a Scene: Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect

Anatomy of a (couple) scenes.

British crime film and television excels in transposing the elements of drama—itself a form brought to peak performance by none other than William Shakespeare—to filmic narrative. Our domestic tendency favors action as a means of propelling a story forward. Actions change situations, as events create new conditions, and a new situation calls for adjustments on the part of our actors. The rule for narrative tension and suspense is in compressing tension into time, producing a waiting of sorts, anticipation for resolution drawing the audience to the cliff’s edge from which nothing can be seen until one is allowed to peer over the edge.

Action spawns the tension of resolution by challenging actors to respond adequately. In British dramatic crime, on the other hand, tension is held in and amongst relations between persons. The challenge presented to actors is in the personal negotiation of relationships, not of action, events, and new circumstances. When an actor playing a role must negotiate personal conflict, s/he can do it by means of the power and authority granted by his or her role, or by his or her personal resources and character. I think it’s this ambiguity that British crime films and television series unfold so powerfully.

Look at the images below. Is it Helen Mirren and David Thewlis as cop and criminal? Or is it Helen Mirren and David Thewlis as individuals? Which drives the story forward and grounds the tension? Can you tell?

My sense of it is that the dramatic frame doubles the performances (personal as well as position or role), thereby granting actors a greater depth and giving them, as performers, a greater range of options from which to choose. A good actor will deliver ambiguity in his or her performance, draw in the audience, and thicken the plot with little more than a gesture, look, or reaction. It soon becomes unclear whether or not the actor is giving us a look at his or her character or role. And because dramatic passages involve inter-personal interactions and encounters with other actors, the doubling is doubled again.

As it turns out, there are more than just eyeballs awaiting spectacles and unexpected thrills watching the show. As it turns out, it takes little to involve us. But a few superb performances can never hurt.

Prime Suspect 3, starring Helen Mirren, David Thewlis, and Ciaran Hinds.

(I shot these from the TV screen)

Full size versions are here: Prime Suspect and Helen Mirren

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