As the new series of The Crown approaches swiftly, there will be many pleasures to anticipate, but for me, one of the greatest will be the chance to see Helena Bonham Carter reprise the role of Princess Margaret. Those who have thought of HRH as a grotesquely privileged and out-of-touch dragon, so wittily and clinically dissected by Craig Brown in his book Ma’am Darling, will have been surprised to find themselves both amused and moved by her portrayal of Margaret. For my money, HBC leaves Olivia Colman’s Elizabeth II in the dust, so lively and likeable is she in the role.
Yet Bonham Carter’s current eminent standing as a quasi-national treasure did not come about simply from playing royalty. Instead, she has established herself as one of the stalwarts of British cinema over the course of a 35-year career that has included everything from iconic Harry Potter villains to decorous romantic leads in adaptations of EM Forster novels, via playing a chimpanzee in her former partner Tim Burton’s ‘reimagining’ of Planet of the Apes. While she remains most associated with costume dramas – as many of these films are – she shows her indelible range in a variety of roles, and we can only hope that we shall be treated to another 35 years of excellence from her.
The Wings of a Dove
Henry James adaptations are usually polite and stiff, but Iain Softley and screenwriter Hossein Amini managed to find a new and vibrant way of telling this particular story, and Bonham Carter gave what is still probably her best performance in it. (She was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets.) She plays Kate Croy, an ambitious but impoverished society lady in love with an equally poor journalist, and together they form a cynical scheme for him to seduce a wealthy, terminally ill American heiress and live off the inheritance after she dies. The character of Kate should be entirely unsympathetic, but Bonham Carter brings her to comprehensible, angry life, all the way to one of cinema’s saddest sex scenes at the conclusion.
In an extreme volte-face from the period roles that she was best known for, Bonham Carter took the female lead, Marla Singer, in David Fincher’s blacker-than-black cult comedy. Marla is a misanthropic, cynical and bitingly witty drop-out who both Ed Norton’s anonymous Narrator and Brad Pitt’s charismatic Tyler Durden find themselves involved with, and Bonham Carter (in a part that Courtney Love was apparently desperate to get) tears up the screen, perfectly delivering lines like ‘the condom is the glass slipper of our generation’ with the zeitgeisty drawl of a proto-hipster. Yet as ever, she remains entirely likeable and sympathetic, anchoring the film’s ever-more outlandish developments with a recognisably (if somewhat outrageous) human centre.
The King’s Speech
At a time when Bonham Carter’s screen roles were tending towards the outrageous and OTT, often as a result of her being directed by Tim Burton, her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech was a welcome reminder that she could do a certain kind of very English charm and dignity better than just about any actor or actress working today.
Colin Firth gets the big thespian pyrotechnics as the stammering George VI, Geoffrey Rush the showiest and most demanding role, and Bonham Carter – like so many women throughout history – has the task of having to accommodate fragile masculine egos, and by doing so ends up portraying the Queen Mother not as a distant figure from history but as a warm and genuine person, leavened with a distinctive dark wit.
A Room with a View
Bonham Carter’s film debut, her first Merchant Ivory film and in many regards the role that she would never escape from. The scene where she kisses Julian Sands in a Tuscan field while Puccini’s ‘O mio babbino caro’ swoons on the soundtrack is much-imitated, and much-parodied, but her portrayal of the heroine Lucy Honeychurch as a free-spirited young woman brings a liveliness and likeability that the character barely had in EM Forster’s original novel. And her scenes with her supposed suitor Cecil Vyse, played with a mixture of tweediness and repression by Daniel Day-Lewis, beautifully combine her gift for comedy with a straightforwardness and lack of pretension that mean that she, unlike so many subsequent co-stars, more than holds her own with Day-Lewis.
Bonham Carter and Tim Burton worked together seven times (eight if you count the Alice in Wonderland sequel that he produced, rather than directed), but her work in many of the films he made is less distinctive than it should be. A welcome exception to this is her Mrs Lovett in his 2007 adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, in which she reveals a talent for singing that had not hitherto been on display in her career.
As the hapless proprietor of the shop selling ‘the worst meat pies in London’, Bonham Carter displays her usual flawless comic timing, especially in a fantasy scene when she imagines herself and Johnny Depp’s doleful Sweeney Todd leading a life of freedom by the seaside, and she manages to make one of Sondheim’s most wickedly comic songs, ‘A Little Priest’, entirely her own.
Bonham Carter was reunited with her Sweeney Todd co-star Sacha Baron Cohen and her King’s Speech director Tom Hooper for the lavish film adaptation of the musical Les Misérables. Their big number together, ‘Master of the House’, injects a welcome dash of humour into what is often a very grim and earnest film. Baron Cohen’s arrogant Monsieur Thénardier boasts about the various ways in which he has robbed his inn’s patrons and – in an interesting shift from the musical, in which Madame Thénardier spends the second half of the song complaining about her lot in life having married beneath her – Bonham Carter’s character reveals herself to be every bit his equal when it comes to chicanery. She moans dramatically about her lost opportunities while taking full advantage of the various greedy or drunken guests. Amusingly, her Crown co-star Olivia Colman played the same role in the BBC’s recent non-musical adaptation of the novel, and their castmate Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles) played Marius in the TV series.