It always comes as a surprise to see Helena Bonham Carter dressed in the latest couture concoction while walking the red carpet for an awards show or movie premiere. Where’s the corset? The sumptuous Elizabethan, Victorian, or Edwardian-era gown? The cloche hat?
One has become so used in the past 25 years to seeing the British actress clad in period dress while brilliantly bringing to life on screen fictional or historical figures from decades and centuries past. To see her looking au courant is almost jarring.
Bonham Carter, now 44, became a star at the tender age of 19 in A Room With a View, which opened in theaters in 1986. She won raves portraying a baby-faced young English woman, circa 1900, who finds love while visiting Italy.
The hallmarks that have characterized Bonham Carter’s many memorable performances in the years since, often as characters willing to flout convention, were all already on display in Room: a questing intelligence and fierce determination coupled with a delicate, kewpie-like beauty.
View is based on a novel by E.M. Forster, an author who has served Bonham Carter well, and vice versa. Other Forster adaptations in which she appeared: 1987’s Maurice, in a walk-on; 1991’s Where Angels Fear to Tread; and, best of all, 1992’s Howards End, in which she and Emma Thompson make a splendid pair of bohemian sisters.
She has played real-life royals three times, most recently with her sympathetic turn as Elizabeth, the loyal helpmate of King George VI, in The King’s Speech. The performance has her competing for a BAFTA on Sunday (February 13) and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the end of this month. Earlier crowned forays including doomed teen queen Lady Jane Grey in 1986’s Lady Jane and Anne Boleyn in a 2003 TV movie, Henry VIII.
My favorite, albeit a fictional monarch, is her outrageously vile Red Queen – I laughed every time she roared, “Off with their heads!”– in last year’s Alice in Wonderland.
Bonham Carter’s range never ceases to astonish.
She went ape as a pulchritudinous primate in the disappointing 2001 remake – where was the inter-special sex? otherwise, why redo it? – of Planet of the Apes. (Not disappointing for her personally, though, as it is the movie that brought Carter together with director Tim Burton, her partner and the father of her two young children.)
She has even sung – her acting was markedly better than her warbling – as pie-baking Mrs. Lovett in Burton’s 2007 film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Carter has been in small movies (I’ve always had a fond spot for 1997’s A Merry War, which is based an autobiographical novel by George Orwell called Keep the Aspidistra Flying) and big ones (including as evil Bellatrix Lestrange in the last three Harry Potter movies, with a final one due this summer). She has been in prestige films (1999’s Fight Club, in which she smooched with both Brad Pitt and Edward Norton) and cartoons (Burton’s The Corpse Bride, and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit).
It’s a darned impressive list. Clearly, whether she’s in a corset or out of it, Carter is an actress for all ages.
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