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Helena Bonham Carter: Queen of the period picture

She is the queen of the British period pictures, the forceful heroine with the flashing eyes and the knack of looking as if she's worn those costumes all her life. Helena Bonham Carter has played Lady Jane Grey and Ophelia, and the heroines of Forster's "Room With a View" and "Howard's End," and the evil doctor's lover in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," and Olivia in "Twelfth Night," and if she somehow missed starring in one of the Jane Austen adaptations, now here she is as Kate Croy, a woman prepared to loan out the man she loves, in Henry James' "The Wings of the Dove."

It is one of her best performances, making her a likely candidate for an Academy Award nomination, and yet like all of her work she cannot bear to watch it. She slipped out of the gala premiere at the Toronto Film Festival: "I didn't particularly want to see it with 1,200 people. I'm totally unmoved by the whole thing. But then I'm never moved by anything that I'm in. It's too excruciating. You know it's only you, you know the drama behind the whole thing, you know the story, everything always seems so long and boring and unsympathetic and uninvolving when it's something I'm in . . ."

But she does like to watch other people in others' movies: "Oh yes, absolutely. Sometimes I can even watch myself, when I have something to hide behind; an accent, or it's a character part. But mostly it's a painful process and not one that I enjoy."

I believe her. I believe she is impatient with herself, and doesn't enjoy looking at herself in a mirror, and spends her days off wearing jeans with holes in the knees, and sees acting in the British way, as more of a job or a craft than an art or a calling. That's why I like her in her period roles: She plays her characters as if she's not impressed with them, as if she knows their weaknesses all too well. She doesn't, like some actors, behave as if she knows she's in a Great Literary Classic.

Consider Kate Croy. Here is one of James' most complicated characters. She is a poor girl who wants to marry a poor boy. Her aunt wants her to marry a Lord. To get her way, Kate needs money. She meets a rich American orphan named Millie Theale, who has a fatal disease, and has come to Europe to live before she dies. Millie likes Kate's poor boy, whose name is Merton Densher. Slowly, subtly, revealing her hand one card at a time, Kate unfolds a scheme in which, to put it bluntly (which James never does), Merton will marry Millie, Millie will die, and Merton will inherit her money and be able to marry Kate.

This could be a soap opera. James makes it a romantic tragedy, by the brilliant expedient of making the three characters like one another. In his novel, their liking is more bittersweet and ironic; the film version deepens it, which has the effect of making Kate's character more sympathetic. It is a wonderful role for Helena Bonham Carter, leaving her always at the crucial apex of the triangle, so that even when she is offscreen, Merton and Millie are following her design.

We sat in a restaurant on the balcony of a vast Toronto hotel, the escalators running past us into the sky, and talked about the worlds of London and Venice in the early years of the century. I observed that she had many famous authors attached to her work: Forster, Shakespeare, Shelley, even George Orwell, whose novel about a wretched bookseller, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, also premiered at Toronto, and also starred Bonham Carter.

"Literary adaptations are sort of the whole industry in England," she mused. "You either get put into films of novels, or you get adopted by the Ken Loachs or the Mike Leighs. That's pretty much the range of the films we produce. I get a new project and I think - been there, done that. But if you look beyond the costumes, they do come from great authors, and the characters are subtly drawn and three-dimensional, and women tend to be the protagonists in period costume dramas. They offer a better stock of female parts than contemporary screenplays."

Your characters aren't typecast, I said, but your sources are.

"It's either literature, or some kind of grotty, gritty, working-class, street sort of thing. Which I would love to do. Although in England there's a sort of chippiness if you try to move out of your assigned niche. Much has been made of my double-barreled name and my so-called illustrious background. I mean, I'm not particularly aristocratic. I'm sort of comfortably, I guess, upper-middle, as they say. But I'm not trendily working-class. And I'm associated with Merchant and Ivory; after having only done two of their films, I have become synonymous with them."

She does have a famous name in England; Bonham Carters have been prominent in politics and the arts for generations.

"You're punished for it," she said. "The thing's beyond your control, you know. Looks, too. You don't choose your parentage, you don't choose your class, you don't choose a hell of a lot of things that you're saddled with, which will inspire a certain reaction from people that will not necessarily be friendly."

Sometimes she leaves the cycle, as when she came to New York three years ago to play Woody Allen's wife in "Mighty Aphrodite." More often she plays one of those wonderful literary heroines. Certainly Kate Croy is one of the best roles in literature. The film's director, Iain Softley, has made a bold choice by taking James, whose novels are told in a flow of sentences sinuously coiling back upon themselves, and adapting his story into a film of spare dialogue and suggestive silences.

"I think `The Wings of the Dove' was the most unwordy film that I've ever done," she said. "There's very little dialogue in it. We had to concentrate on what was not being said."

The peculiar thing about the relationship between Kate and Millie, I said, is that they really like each other. The heiress more or less understands the exact situation - that the man she loves needs her money to marry the woman he loves.

"Oh, everyone knows. Kate may be seen as the immoral character, but I think she's the one who has the most moral courage. She comes up with a plan, and she implements it. Merton tries the moral high ground, he tries being outraged, but he goes along with it, and Millie at the end goes along with it too."

To some degree doesn't Millie come to Europe knowing she's dying and hoping to have a fling?

"That's all she wants. She wants to live."

The scenes in Venice, I said, were so atmospheric. Venice in the summer is filled with tourists, but Venice in the winter, when the movie is set, is such a dark romantic backdrop . . .

"We had four weeks there," she said. "Unfortunately, it was actually August."

You're kidding!

"We made it look like winter. It was, as you can imagine, a logistical nightmare."

The shot, for example, where the camera sweeps into the cafe in San Marco in the rain . . .

"It's just one rain machine. We had a very odd shooting schedule. We'd shoot through the night, and then we'd have an hour and a half of daylight at the beginning, just after dawn, before the square filled up. Suddenly the tourists would arrive en masse, and we'd have to stop.

"When Merchant and Ivory made `Room With a View,' they pulled some strings in Florence, and bought the plaza for the day. So they could be imperialistic and keep everyone out, including irate tourists who had traveled so far and couldn't go in to see the loggia and all that. But you can't rent Venice for the day so it was an absolute sort of nightmare."

I would have never guessed in a thousand years that you shot in August.

"There was a lot of rain in that film, wasn't there? I felt seasick for about the first two weeks. It took me an age to find my sea legs because we were always on gondolas. But on the gondola you feel fine, it's when you get on the ground that the swaying doesn't stop."

In the film Millie rents a palazzo, and for the film they used the same palazzo on the Grand Canal that Henry James lived in. Speaking of palazzos, I said, because I love phrases like "speaking of palazzos," what about the one Woody Allen was thinking of buying? The bad luck palazzo? Everyone who has ever owned it has met an untimely end. It's haunted and they all commit suicide or fall into the canal or something.

"Woody loves traveling," she said, "but as long as it's in five-star hotels with all his little creature comforts around him."

That was sort of an unexpected departure for you, playing Woody Allen's wife . . .

"I auditioned without knowing what the part was. I just had some pages of dialogue. I didn't read very well, and I had no idea what I was meant to be projecting. It was like some spy movie. They said the script would be in a brown envelope in such and such a hotel. I was to pick it up there, read it an hour, and then meet Woody for an hour's conversation, and then hand back the script."

Sounds like working for Kubrick.

"There is a degree of paranoia there. Although it was very nice working with him."

After Toronto she was going to go home to London, she said, and unpack. She had bought a house in a sort of bohemian neighborhood down the hill from artsy Hampstead, and after a year she still hadn't moved in. Too much travel, too many locations; she's made three films since "The Wings of the Dove."

"I have a lot of work to do on it. I've got an interesting relation with the pub in front, because that's where you park. The trouble is, in the summer at least, they use it as a bit of a beer garden, so you've got this immediate audience . . ."

You mean you have to walk through a beer garden to get to your front door?

"They're regulars."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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