The Way They Were: Helena Bonham Carter

From the high points on her filmography, one could say that Helena Bonham Carter has cornered the market on quirky. It would seem as if her entire catalogue hinges upon singular characters. Her collaboration with auteur Tim Burton and Johnny Depp has reinforced her association with offbeat in the eyes of the movie-going public, but her ability to act anchors her performances, rather than landing them in the pile of cartoonish.

This fact was underscored with her recent Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in The King’s Speech. But we’ll get to that in a second. So many of her iconic roles are in movies that require a stylized representation:  an outsized character that could be, in the wrong hands, cartoonish.

Helena Bonham Carter1 The Way They Were: Helena Bonham Carter

Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange

I first noticed her in 1999’s Fight Club. Although the movie’s central focus concerns Tyler Durden’s inner dialogue, Bonham Carter is positively raw as Marla Singer. Her role here is not necessarily superfluous, but it gave her an opportunity to show range heretofore unseen. Her strung-out, fringe-dwelling Marla served as a transition to more adventurous roles.

Big Fish is probably one of my favorite movies of all time. My Irish pedigree demands the love of a good story and in Fish, Burton delivers big time. I cry every time I watch the scenes of a dying Albert Finney is driven to the water, encountering the characters from his life (both real and imagined).  Here, Bohnam Carter establishes her penchant for portraying magical, ethereal, spectral characters. Her Jenny goes from ingenue to decrepit within the space of the film’s narrative.

In both Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and The Deathly Hallows, Bellatrix Lestrange provided the opportunity for Bohnam Carter to solidify her box office cred. Her maniacal, disturbed and obsessively loyal Death Eater is at once irrational and understandable. The reverence and awe for Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort that comes through her performance are utterly believable. Her features, particularly her eyes, are completely transparent, revealing the madness within. Coupled with her piercing shrieking laughter (especially when she expresses her glee at murdering her cousin), she succeeds in establishing a fully-formed dark disciple.

In a derivation of the slick, stylized Lestrange, Bonham Carter next portrays lovesick Mrs. Nellie Lovett in Burton’s Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Almost an inverted Gothic twist on the period pieces in which she had previously appeared, Mrs. Lovett is a corsetted, besotted pie maker who willingly accepts the uh, raw material from Depp’s Todd which she bakes in her grisly wares. Unaware of Todd’s true feelings for her, she daydreams of the time when they shall live together – seen through the yearnings of the sung “By the Sea” sequence. Woefully ignorant of her fate, she dances to her death; swirling in the arms of a man who will  never love her.

Burton applied his other-worldly lens to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland in a riotous, psychedelic celebration of wisdom through insanity. I loved this film. Loved it. For what it’s worth, I’m sure that there are a whole bunch of people who thought it was claptrap, but they are all dead inside. With The Red Queen, Bohnam Carter allows herself to go full-out cartoonish, to great affect. Her very features accentuate her portrayal, and she fully inhabits the belligerent, demanding, commanding royal.

Contrasting that performance with her controlled portrayal of The King’s Speech’s Queen Elizabeth, Bohnam Carter gives us mumsy, accessible and charming. Respectable and regal, we see a monarch who is also a supportive wife and human. Blessed with an ability to also appear insecure (I’ll always remember her mini-meltdown in the car en route to meet with the willowy Wallis Simpson), her queen endears us to her. She is our proxy as we watch the king overcome his challenges, and we celebrate her loyalty and allegiance.

I’m looking forward to her next feature: Toast, co-starring her Charlie and the Chocolate Factory “son” Freddie Highmore. What did I miss? Jot down your thoughts in the comments!

FIGHT CLUB – MARLA SINGER (1999)
BIG FISH – JENNY/WITCH (2003)
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX – BELLATRIX LESTRANGE (2007)
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET – MRS. LOVETT (2007)
HARRY POTTER/DEATHLY HALLOWS - BELLATRIX LESTRANGE (2010/2011)
ALICE IN WONDERLAND – THE RED QUEEN (2010)
THE KING’S SPEECH – QUEEN ELIZABETH (2010)

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