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BONHAM CARTER, HELENA: Wings of the Dove

CORONETS, CORSETS, CRIPPLES ÖCARTERíS BEEN THERE DONE THAT
Sheís the most alluring actress to make a living in corsets amongst any of her generation. Fiercely private, independent and headstrong, Bonham Carter is as passionate off screen, as she is on. Now, at 31, she has attained critical acclaim and even a possible date with Oscar for her latest film, the sharply observed adaptation of Henry Jamesí Wings of a Dove, which premiered at the 1997 Toronto Film Festival. It was there that PAUL FISCHER met the young actress, who refuses to play by the rules.

Helena Bonham Carter has a quiet dignity as she walks into a room. It's hard to see her without the lace and corsets, but at the Toronto Film Festival, her hair is short, having cut it for her latest role as the victim of motor-neuron disorder (Lou Gehrigís disease) in the yet to be released The Theory Of Flight, in which she co-stars with Kenneth Branagh. Her attire is casual and thereís an intelligent eloquence about this actress one rarely sees in her American counterparts. Itís no coincidence that in her debut film, when she was a teenager, she played an adolescent queen in Lady Jane. She personifies British aristocracy. She was, after all, well-born into one of Englandís most prominent families, in both the social and cinematic senses.

She is the great-granddaughter of Lord Herbert Henry Asquith, a Liberal Prime Minister of England; the granddaughter of Lady Violet Bonham Carter, celebrated politician, orator, and member of the House of Lords; and the grand niece of famed screenwriter-director Anthony Asquith (The Browning Version, The Importance of Being Earnest). Alas, a privileged birth doesnít always make for a carefree upbringing, and Bonham Carterís was certainly no rose garden. Her formative years were marred by two tragic events: her half-French, half-Spanish mother, Elena, suffered a nervous breakdown when Helena was five (long since recovered, Elena is a practicing psychotherapist and is also commissioned by her daughter to read and analyse her scripts); and during her early adolescence, her merchant banker father, Raymond, suffered a massive stroke that rendered him a paraplegic and partially blind following a routine operation to remove a benign brain tumour.

Her fatherís distressing paralysis spurred Helena into action. While Raymond was still battling for his life in intensive care, his then thirteen-year-old daughter took command of her future by paying to list her photo in a casting directory with money she had won in a poetry competition and thumbing through the yellow pages until she found an agent to represent her. The independent-minded young woman who would go on to become a Merchant-Ivory mascot, landed her first professional acting gig at the age of fifteen: a hi-fi commercial in which she portrayed Juliet.

"Iíve been typecast not only for costume drama but as well as this sort of posh person, an upper-middle class aristocrat. Which Iím not at all."

Some two years later, director Trevor Nunn plucked Bonham Carter from obscurity to play the title role of Lady Jane, his film about the abbreviated reign of Englandís Reformation-era teen queen. The auspicious opportunity came at a time when Bonham Carter was preparing to take the Oxbridge exam (an admissions test administered by Oxford and Cambridge), having decided to bag acting in favour of studying English literature and philosophy. Nunn, who was trolling for the perfect candidate to portray his sixteenth-century protagonist, became interested in Bonham Carter after seeing a photograph of her taken from the pages of Tatler magazine. Though she was determined not to be swayed from her intended academic path, Nunn proved persistent enough in his efforts to meet Bonham Carter that she finally consented to an audition. Within a month, the part was hers.

Bonham Carter was never pressured to follow a family tradition, to do what was expected. "There was never any time that I was given ANY sense of what I should be doing." Itís been said that her typecasting in period films has as much to do with her family origins as the kind of actress she is. But sheíll have none of that. "That is somewhat of an illusion. Iíve been typecast not only for costume drama but as well as this sort of posh person, an upper-middle class aristocrat. Which Iím not at all. Iím not aristocratic, at least. Yes, we do have a title in the family but ..." The but has to do with what she calls the "confusing" and "pedantic" English class system that metes titles out by heritage and by merit. Her family got one on merit because of the political connections.

Acting was the one thing young Helena did to separate her from her upper class peers, and her parents were ultimately supportive. As well as Jane Grey in Lady Jane (1986), the beautiful, young neophyte continued to demonstrate her range as Ophelia in the Mel Gibson version of Hamlet (1990).

"... I thought this film was worth doing, because it was less repressed emotionallyóand sexually." on Wings of the Dove

Not content with simply interpreting the classics, she amazed her fans with her marvellously erotic portrayal of a mixed-up socialite in 1989ís Getting It Right. Had she done no other screen work, Bonham Carterís fame would have been justified on the basis of two Merchant/Ivory productions: A Room with a View (1985) and Howardís End (1992). She turned away the period garb to comic perfection in Woody Allenís Mighty Aphrodite, but has thrown it back on again in Wings of a Dove. The actress is only too aware of the image that she has maintained. "I feel somewhat restricted by a certain imageóthe corset one," Bonham Carter muses in her Toronto hotel. "But I thought this film was worth doing, because it was less repressed emotionallyóand sexually."

Based on one of Henry Jamesí lesser-known novels, Wings of a Dove has Bonham Carter as Kate Croy, a woman caught in the proverbial struggle between 19th-century convention and 20th-century freedom, having to conceal her illicit love for a common journalist (Linus Roach) from her wealthy, class-conscious aunt (Charlotte Rampling), who threatens to cut off support to Kateís destitute, opium-addicted father (Michael Gambon). Having been manipulated, Kate becomes the manipulator, coaxing her lover into the arms of a dying American heiress (Allison Elliott), who has also fallen in love with the man.

Though a period piece, Bonham Carter concedes that this portrayal of such a distinctly aggressive woman is strangely modern, and unique from many of the more subservient creations she has found herself in. "Thatís another reason why I thought I could do it," says Bonham Carter. "The script I got from director Iain Softley (written by Hossein Amini) was the least wordy literary adaptation Iíd ever read. I knew it would be a different kind of Edwardian costume drama for me and that it would be a very different kind of film. Added to that, the character would be different. Itís modern in the way it has been shot, and the pace moves along. It seems to have a different energy from the other costume dramas Iíve done and it is much more passionate than you usually see."

"Iím sure when itís time for me to do press for the film in England, thatís all the British tabloids will want to know, bugger the rest of the movie." on the nude scene

In talking about the film, one canít escape the fact that she does, towards the end, remove her corset for the filmís frequently discussed nude scene. "Iím sure when itís time for me to do press for the film in England, thatís all the British tabloids will want to know, bugger the rest of the movie." To set the record straight, this is NOT Bonham Carterís first nude scene, but itís the one that has caused the most attention. The actress is far from fazed. "Iím not a prude, and I donít mind taking my clothes off as long itís pertinent to the script."

The British press certainly enjoy taunting the actress who now maintains a high profile relationship with Frankenstein co-star and director, Kenneth Branagh. She rarely discusses the relationship, and the couple rarely ventures out in public, but they do share a house, a London Ďcountryí house in fashionable Golders Green. On the subject of Branagh, she wonít be drawn, except to concede that "Itís difficult in terms of the obvious thing that youíre often going to be apart (because of work). But then equally you get a lot to share. Itís very difficult for someone out of the business to understand the pressures of the business." As for the way she will continually be discussed by the British media in particular, she feels that sheís more relaxed about that whole Ďimage thingí. "I feel less enslaved if, as I do now, I read less and less the things that are written about me. With no offence to you, itís sometimes perpetuated by the media, all the epithets I get."

"It was laughing fits again and I just couldnít keep a straight face." on auditioning with partner Kenneth Branagh

Bonham Carter did get to work with Branagh for the first time since Frankenstein on the very different film, Theory of Flight. "We did actually have to decide whether working together would dilute our concentration," recalled Bonham Carter "because, when you know someone like that, you think, are you going to not believe what your doing? Or, is it going to interfere? So we actually auditioned. But unfortunately," she continues "it was laughing fits again and I just couldnít keep a straight face. I already had the part, thank god, but during Kennethís audition, it was major sabotageóI didnít help him out at all. Fortunately, though, we have the same sense of humour."

"It would have been just the plum part to get all methody and stay in my wheelchair and everything... But fuck that." on her role in Theory of Flight

Though Theory Of Flight is about a young woman who finds herself confined to a wheelchair, trying to cope with her debilitating disease, Bonham Carter contends that itís meant to be touching and funny. "It would have been just the plum part to get all methody and stay in my wheelchair and everything," she explains. "But fuck that. After about two hours I was out of it quick. I just got so stiff, I thought, I canít go on sitting here not moving. Though I really admire those actors that go through the method thingóI admire Daniel Day-Lewis for what he did in My Left FootóI donít think Iíd have the confidence to ask people to feed me during my lunch break and make every location wheelchair-accessible. It was challenging," she contends, "but there is so much cynicism amongst actors, you know, Ďcrippled part, get an awardí - itís the sort of thing thatís easily impresses. We had a few scenes with really disabled people and I did feel a little bit awkward being able to get out of my wheelchair after a take. But they were great about it: they would say, Ďoh, a miracle! She walks!í

On awards, she continues to be blasť, scoffing at the idea that she's a top contender for an Oscar. "I don't believe a word of it", she adds laughingly.

This interview also appeared in Sunday Telegraph, Feb 15, 1998.

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Photo by Judy Kopperman

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