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Veteran actress Helen Mirren shows the kids how it's done.

TEACHING MRS. TINGLE purports to be about three teenagers fighting back against a tyrannical history teacher, but it's really about three callow twenty-something actors cowering in fear in the face of one of the greatest actresses alive, Helen Mirren. Mirren has previously been in art flicks like The Company of Strangers and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, but she's probably best-known as Jane Tennyson in the recurring British miniseries Prime Suspect. She plays this movie's title character with such effortless authority and deliciously unrepentant nastiness that, frankly, any scene that isn't about Mrs. Tingle is spent impatiently waiting for her to return.

TEACHING MRS. TINGLE

directed by Kevin Williamson

starring Helen Mirren, Katie Holmes, Barry Watson

opens August 20 at Meridian, Metro, and others

The story follows Leigh Ann (Katie Holmes of Dawson's Creek), a good student whose chances for college depend on winning a scholarship. Leigh Ann creates an absurdly detailed historical diary for her history project, but Mrs. Tingle dismisses it as sentimental and gives it a C, jeopardizing the scholarship. To make things worse, a sexy, raffish ne'er-do-well named Luke (Barry Watson of Seventh Heaven) steals Mrs. Tingle's upcoming history final; when it's discovered by chance in Leigh Ann's bag, her entire reputation could be sunk. Leigh Ann, Luke, and aspiring actress Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlin of some show that isn't even on the air yet) go to Mrs. Tingle's house to convince the wicked teacher that Leigh Ann wasn't cheating, but somehow things go awry and they end up tying Mrs. Tingle to her bed and holding her hostage.

Katie Holmes is a decent actress but depends a little too much on her big brown eyes and crooked smile. The other students are pretty but empty, the human equivalent of candy bars. It's hard to be on their side; Mirren is so much more commanding, intelligent, and sexy that you begin to wonder if she isn't right about Leigh Ann—maybe the goody girl is a sham, maybe her seemingly exhaustive project is shallow and saccharine. In all their efforts to outwit Mrs. Tingle, the students are hopelessly outmatched; she plays them like violins simply by telling them who they really are and what's really happening between them. This part of the movie is quite entertaining, though entirely at the expense of our "heroes." Supposedly, at the end, Leigh Ann finally does something "bad"—she tells a lie—thus liberating herself and defeating Mrs. Tingle in one fell swoop. But her lie is dull and arbitrary; far from demonstrating burgeoning wit or canniness, it depends upon a circumstance that she neither engineered nor took clever advantage of.

But for all its weaknesses, I hope this movie is a huge hit. That might give Mirren the clout to get bigger, juicier roles. Go see Teaching Mrs. Tingle and experience her for yourself. See if you don't come away savoring her sardonic gaze and treacherous, manipulative tongue, eager to join the Helen Mirren fan club. Teenage girls should have posters of Mrs. Tingle in their bedrooms. Forget the Spice Girls; she represents true girl power.

 
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