Bonham-Carter, Helena

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Nationality: British. Born: London, England, 26 May 1966; great-granddaughter of Liberal Prime Minister Lord Herbert Asquith, granddaughter of socialite Lady Violet Bonham Carter and grandniece of the director Anthony Asquith. Education: Attended South Hampstead High School; Westminster School. Career: Made screen debut when chosen by director Trevor Nunn for the title role in Lady Jane, and began association with director James Ivory when cast in A Room with a View, 1986; made her London stage debut in The Woman in White, 1988. Awards: Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role Genie Award, Fantasporto-Best Actress International Fantasy Film Award, for Margaret's Museum, 1995; London Critics Circle British Actress of the Year, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Actress, National Board of Review Best Actress, Boston Society of Film Critics Best Actress, Society of Texas Film Critics Best Actress, Southeastern Film Critics Association Best Actress, for The Wings of the Dove, 1997. Agent: Adam Isaacs, United Talent Agency, 9560 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.

Films as Actress:


A Pattern of Roses (for TV) (as Netty)


Lady Jane (Nunn) (title role); A Room with a View (Ivory) (as Lucy Honeychurch)


Maurice (Ivory) (as young lady at cricket match); The Vision (Norman Stone—for TV) (as Jo Marriner); A Hazard of Hearts (John Hough—for TV) (as Serena Staverley)


La Maschera (The Mask) (Infascelli) (as Iris)


Francesco (Caviani) (as Chiara); Getting It Right (Kleiser) (as Lady Minerva Munday)


Hamlet (Zeffirelli) (as Ophelia)


Where Angels Fear to Tread (Sturridge) (as Caroline Abbott)


Howards End (Ivory) (as Helen Schlegel)


Fatal Deception: Mrs. Lee Harvey Oswald (Marina's Story) (Dornhelm—for TV) (as Marina Oswald)


Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Branagh) (as Elizabeth); A Dark-Adapted Eye (Fywell—for TV) (as adult Faith)


Mighty Aphrodite (Woody Allen) (as Amanda); Margaret's Museum (Ransen) (as Margaret MacNeil)


Twelfth Night (Trevor Nunn) (as Olivia); Portraits chinois (Shadow Play) (Dugowson) (as Ada)


The Wings of the Dove (Softley) (as Kate Croy); Keep the Aspidistra Flying (A Merry War) (Bierman) (as Rosemary); The Petticoat Expeditions (as Narrator)


The Theory of Flight (Greengrass) (as Jane Hatchard); Merlin (Barron—for TV) (as Morgan Le Fay); The Revengers' Comedies (Mowbray) (as Karen Knightly)


Fight Club (Fincher) (as Marla Singer); Carnivale (Taylor (as Milly); Women Talking Dirty (Giedroyc) (as Cora); The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything (Humphreys, Jackson, Lipsey—for TV)


Novocaine (Atkins); Till Human Voices Wake Us (Petroni)


By BONHAM-CARTER: articles—

"From School to Stardom: A Teen-ager's Lark for Helena Bonham-Carter," interview with Nina Darnton, in New York Times, 2 March 1986.

"Helena Bonham-Carter; Cary Elwes," interview with Louise Tanner, in Films in Review (New York), April 1986.

"Boxing Helena," interview with Elaine Paterson, in Time Out (London), 17–31 December, 1997.

On BONHAM-CARTER: articles—

Amberson, M., "Helena's Niche," in Movieline (Los Angeles), June 1991.

Mundy, C., "She's Leaving Home. Really," in Premiere (New York), November 1994.

Current Biography (New York), 1998.

Frankel, Martha, "California Dreaming," in Movieline (Los Angeles), December 1999.

* * *

When one thinks of Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala and E. M. Forster, one also thinks of Helena Bonham-Carter. Other actors, including Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, James Wilby, and Hugh Grant, have appeared in more than one James Ivory-directed feature beginning in the mid-1980s. But it seems as if Bonham-Carter had been in them all.

Early in her career, Bonham-Carter most often acted on screen in period costume. This was the case in her first starring film, Lady Jane, directed by Trevor Nunn and set in sixteenth-century England. She is well-cast as Lady Jane Grey, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk: the ill-equipped, ill-fated adolescent who, as the result of political intrigue, is forced into marriage with Guilford Dudley (Cary Elwes), son of the Duke of Northumberland, and ends up on the throne of England for barely a week before being executed. Bonham-Carter adequately expresses Lady Jane's initial shyness and naïveté; the actress believably portrays the character's transformation as Lady Jane discovers her sexuality and embraces youthful idealism while coming to envision a far more equitable world. At this point in her career, one can see Bonham-Carter cast as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet.

In Forster's A Room with a View, her first film with Ivory, Bonham-Carter gives a thoughtful performance as Lucy Honeychurch, a wealthy, detached young woman who has traveled to Florence in the company of her fastidious aunt (Maggie Smith). As in Lady Jane, Bonham-Carter's character undergoes an emancipation as she becomes involved in a romantic relationship. After this promising start, however, Bonham-Carter faltered. In Ivory and Forster's Howards End she is just one of an ensemble, with her fellow actors—including Hopkins, Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, and Samuel West—cast in the juicier roles. As a result, Bonham-Carter registers on screen as little more than a kewpie doll presence. The actress especially suffers when cast opposite strong, naturalistic performers. This is most apparent in Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, in which she is Dr. Frankenstein's love interest, whom he turns into a monster reminiscent of Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein. She is the weak link in a cast headed by Branagh (as Dr. Frankenstein) and Robert De Niro (as the Frankenstein monster). After Lady Jane and A Room with a View, Bonham-Carter's best early career period-film performance came in Where Angels Fear to Tread (based on an E. M. Forster novel but directed by Charles Sturridge rather than Ivory). Here, she is cast as another repressed young Englishwoman who gets in touch with her emotions when she becomes involved romantically.

Bonham-Carter on occasion has appeared in more contemporary settings, most successfully in Getting It Right, in which she plays an eccentric, unstable young lady; The Theory of Flight, cast as a fiesty paraplegic, dying of Lou Gehrig's disease, who is desperate to lose her virginity; and Fight Club, one of her higher-profile late 1990s features, in which she elicits a plucky sensuality as a chainsmoking hipster/faker who is first seen lying her way into twelve-step support groups. However, in the latter, her role is secondary to those played by Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. And she barely registers when cast as characters who aren't quirky flakes. In Robert Bierman's adaptation of George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying (retitled A Merry War), she is unmemorable as the level-headed girlfriend of ad man/artist wannabe Richard E. Grant. In Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite, she has the far less interesting of the two leading female roles. She is a Manhattan art gallery owner, married to Allen's sportswriter, with the scenario set in motion when the couple decides to adopt a baby. The film's showcase role is played by Mira Sorvino, cast as the loopy prostitute who is the child's birth mother.

Bonham-Carter gave what is by far her most full-bodied performance to date in a film that might have been made by James Ivory: Iain Softley's adaptation of Henry James's The Wings of the Dove, playing Kate Croy, the penniless relation of her wealthy aunt. Kate is being courted by a rich boor, but has fallen deeply in love with Merton Densher (Linus Roache), no child of the upper class but rather a hopelessly poor journalist—and she is faced with a romantic predicament on which rides her future and her happiness. Softley's telling of the story features a hot-and-heavy, between-the-sheets sensuality that surely would have Henry James twisting in his grave.

As Bonham-Carter's career progresses, she might be best advised to seek out characters who have, at the story's outset, experienced more of life. She did just that in Fight Club, and also in Margaret's Museum, a low-profile Canadian film in which she plays an embittered small-town woman who despises the local mines, and is wooed and won by a former miner. And if she is to sustain her stardom, Bonham-Carter also must choose her projects with care. In the barely releasable Women Talking Dirty, she plays a spunky single mother opposite Gina McKee's shy cartoonist. The scenario focuses on the friendship between the two women; actually, they do very little "talking dirty" but instead suffer at the hands of almost all the men they know, who are collectively cruel and manipulative. Those who feel compelled to indiscriminately male-bash not only will like Women Talking Dirty but will cheer the film. At the same time, it will be dismissed by those who are looking for a film that is more complex and mature, that does not just aspire to take pot-shots at an entire sex. A film like Women Talking Dirty serves neither its audience nor an actress of the stature of Bonham-Carter.

—Rob Edelman