Helena Bonham Carter: English Rose Gone Bad
A homicidal red-headed tyrant, a killer robot, a sadistic witch, a purveyor of cannibal pies and a Corpse Bride… This is what Helena Bonham Carter has been getting up to recently: unleashing her inner freak. As your mother would say, she seemed like such a nice girl…
She was still a teenager when she starred as Lucy Honeychurch in Merchant-Ivory’s production of EM Forster’s A Room With A View back in 1985.
To all intents and purposes she was the perfect English rose: prim but plucky, with serious eyebrows, auburn hair layered like a gateau, her pale complexion offset by cherry-blossom cheekbones. Posh too. She came from baronets and bluebloods. Her great grandfather was Prime Minister Lord Asquith (the filmmaker Anthony Asquith was her great uncle).
The film had pedigree too – Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Denholm Elliott and a young Daniel Day Lewis… Merchant-Ivory (an Indian and an American) were embarking on their peak period as self-appointed guardians of British heritage cinema, and this was the epitome of the classic literary adaptation, handsomely photographed, witty, and romantic. Audiences flocked, there were Oscars and a fistful of Bafta nominations (though not for HBC, still too wet behind the ears).
Though she tried to mix things up – she did a couple of episodes of Miami Vice as Don Johnson’s fiancee – it seemed that casting directors only wanted to see Bonham Carter in petticoats. Her second film (which had actually been shot first, but was released a year later) was another plum period piece, the title role in Trevor Nunn’s Lady Jane.
Meanwhile Merchant Ivory capitalized on their success, apparently besotted with their latest ingénue. Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991) was virtually a sequel, and she was Helen Schlegel in Howard’s End (1992), another big success. As Lynn Barber noted in a mid-90s Observer profile, ‘She has the ability, very rare in an actress, of being able to play virgins convincingly.’
Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein (1994) consolidated her status as the movie’s reigning corset queen, so perhaps it was understandable when she complained about the frustrations of typecasting and admitted she would like to shock her fans.
She received a withering slap-down from actress Kathy Burke for her troubles. Writing to Time Out magazine in response to her remarks, Burke advised, ‘As a lifelong member of the non-pretty working classes, I would like to say to Helena Bonham Carter (wholly pledged member of the very pretty upper-middle classes): shut up!’ She threw in a couple of expletives at the end for good measure.
Burke had a point. It was a bit rich of Bonham Carter to complain about the silver spoon in her mouth – especially when she bailed at the last minute on the biggest break in her career, the lead in Lars von Trier’s Breaking The Waves (1997). The role – a sheltered, beatific Scottish crofter who discovers the joy of sex and then goes through all manner of torments when her husband is paralyzed in an oil-drill accident – was physically demanding, sexually explicit, and emotionally draining. Exactly the kind of part she said she wanted. But for whatever reason, she fled. Instead, von Trier turned to an untried newcomer, Emily Watson, who delivered perhaps the most intense and transcendent performance of the decade.
Yet Bonham Carter was growing up. A last corset role, Kate Croy in The Wings Of The Dove (1997) took the romantic innocence that audiences had come to expect from her and twisted it into something mercenary and callous. It was a subtle but steely turn of the knife, and remains a career peak.
Women Talking Dirty (1999), Novocaine (2001) and especially Fight Club (1999) confirmed that she meant to put the past behind her – these were salty, provocative, contemporary films, and HBC was almost unrecognizable: punky, assertive, sexy.
And then she met Tim.
Unquestionably her relationship with Burton has been good for her as an actress, even if time out to start a family hasn’t been advantageous to her career. In their first collaboration she was (almost) unrecognizable as the pretty simian Ari in the slightly slapdash Planet Of The Apes (2001). Then she took a trio of heavily disguised roles in Big Fish, played Mrs Bucket in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, voiced (and evidently modeled for) the aforementioned Corpse Bride, and perfected her baking as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd. Now, of course, she’s the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland.
Burton has liberated her. If the performances immediately before they met were fueled by the desire to reject the Edwardian primrose, and to shock, the roles since revel in reinvention. Formerly retiring and withdrawn, she is now flamboyant and larger than life. She has embraced make up and make believe – not unlike Burton’s favourite performer, Johnny Depp. And the results aren’t restricted to her film’s with partner, as her banshee-like Bellatrix Lestrange proves.
With Burton’s help the English rose has bloomed – and she’s putting on quite a show.
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