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5 Great Helen Mirren Films from the 1980s

Helen Mirren is an Academy Awarding winning actress who is best known to modern film-goers for her action roles and her enduring allure as a cinema beauty. Advocating independence and inspiring countless women with her numerous defining roles that have spanned the spectrum of sexuality to politics to everything in-between, she is a legend in the business and continues to win fans around the world. Here are 5 great films from the 1980s that are only better because this stunning and impactful screen presence is in the cast.

Excalibur (1981)

A sword and sorcery film from director John Borman, this retelling of the classic tale of Merlin the Magician and King Arthur was a landmark film in its time, a visually captivating work that brought to life the oft-told tale in a dark and adult-themed style. The cast is full of future big stars, including Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, and Gabriel Byrne. Mirren plays Morgana, Arthur’s evil half-sister, an apprentice of Merlin who learns to use magic in nefarious ways, one of which transforms her in Guinevere, Arthur’s wife who betrayed him. In Guinevere’s form, she seduces her own step-brother and bears a son. Mirren is perfectly cast as the bitter Morgana, alluring and deceptive, and in a cast that is primary men in shimmering armor, holds her own as scheming sister. The film is epic in scale and still holds up today, thanks largely to the spectacular performances.

White Nights (1985)

A Soviet defector and world-class ballet dancer Nikolai ‘Kolya’ Rodchenko (Mikhail Baryshnikov) is on a plane that crash lands in Siberia. He is taken back behind the iron curtain to dance again for Russia, much to his regret and anger. Against his will, he is paired with an American tap-dancing expatriate and sent to Leningrad to begin his training and wooing back into his former home. Mirren plays Galina Ivanova, a once acclaimed ballerina and lover of Rodchenko, used by the government to try and lure Rodchenko to change his attitude and convince him that this is a better life. In the film’s more dynamic and bittersweet moment, she witnesses the real reason why he can’t ever dance in Russia again. While Baryshnikov is astonishing on stage, Mirren is magnetic and heartbreaking as she watches. We’ve already written about why it’s so good here. The film has its flaws, mostly in the script, but the performances and dance sequences are truly the reason to add this to your list.

The Mosquito Coast (1986)

A husband and father (Harrion Ford) grows disillusioned with America and believes it is headed for a corruptive, explosive end. He packs up his family and leads them to the jungles of Belize, where the genius inventor plans to bring ice and therefore, by his rational, civilization, to the natives (even if they have no need for it). Mirren plays ‘Mother’ who tries to understand her husband’s vision, believing him to be fair and just as it begins, but struggles to keep her family together and protect her children from the ever-increasing danger the changes introduce. A tour-de-force performance by Ford, Mirren is his equal, a powerful woman of conviction and direction who steadfastly believes her husband is right. As the nightmare of their ordeal presses them into more and more challenging, often frightful situations, Mother fiercely clings to what she can to keep her family safe. Directed by Peter Wier, this is an astonishing film that needs to be seen.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

This romantic crime drama is a wickedly sharp black comedy directed by Peter Greenaway, that, at the time, was near scandalous for its scathing political satire and copious sex and full-frontal nudity. The story is just as the title suggest, about four people and their involvement with each other. Mirren plays ‘The Wife’, Georgina Spica, unhappily married, abused and unable to break free. She’s secretly having an affair that is doomed from the start. Mirren is a straight-up marvel, in a fearless role (she appears fully nude), her character arch from timid, long-suffering wife to erotic lover to vengeful monster is something to behold. A challenging film, even years later, it pushes the envelope of adult-themed movies, something there is still not enough of. This is one of Mirren’s best performances and while it might fill you with unease, it’s a joy to experience.

2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)

A sequel to the legendary 2001: A Space Odyssey, this remarkable, but under-seen, movie is one of the best movies of the decade. Written by Arthur C. Clarke, and directed by Peter Hyams, this epic sci-fi adventure isn’t quite as mind-melting as the original, but is does have a lot to say, buckling a little under the tremendous weight of is predecessor. Mirren plays Tanya Kirbuk, the captain of the Russian space ship Leonov, part of a combined mission with the United States, carrying Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) to investigate the loss of contact with the Discovery and Hal-9000. Mirren’s Kirbuk is a strong leader and Mirren brings a palpable sense of urgency and conviction to the role as she and Floyd must find a way to cooperate with each other even while their home countries back home cannot. Refreshingly not cast as the love interest, this movie is smarter than that, and allows Kirbuk to be a truly inspiring and empowering character. Watch this film.