Helena Bonham Carter breaks out of her movie mold

November 09, 1997|By Ruthe Stein | Ruthe Stein,SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Helena Bonham Carter knows she has an image problem. Since her first starring role as Jane Grey in the 1985 "Lady Jane," she has been pigeonholed as the queen of costume dramas.

Between Merchant-Ivory films ("A Room With a View," "Howards End") and Shakespeare ("Twelfth Night," "Hamlet"), she has worn gowns from almost every period except the present.

Because of these films, "There's this image of me as corseted and prim and irredeemably English -- all those things I don't think I am," she complains.

Carter, 31, certainly doesn't look prim. She's wearing a brown lace miniskirt, stylishly high boots and a very '90s spiked hairdo.

Events in her personal life are going further than she might want in smashing her prudish image. Carter is romantically involved with Kenneth Branagh, her director and co-star in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein."

Although not even the cheeky British press has dared to call her a home wrecker, the rumor that they fell in love while making the movie in 1994 appears to be true. At the time, Branagh was married to Emma Thompson (who had played Carter's sister in "Howards End"); the couple split up the next year.

"Of course we're together, and it's very nice, thank you," Carter said in June, her first public comment on her affair with Branagh.

Her latest film, "The Wings of the Dove," also may change the way she is perceived.

True, Carter once again appears in costume -- early 19th century this time -- as an Englishwoman who, to ensure her place in society, plots to marry off her common lover (Linus Roache of "Priest") to a very rich American with not long to live. But her searing and very sexy performance seems to belong more to the present than the past.

Intrigue and innocence

Director Iain Softley says he cast Carter for her "wicked combination of spicy Machiavellian intrigue combined with lovely innocence" and because "Helena is very difficult to place age-wise."

Based on a novel by the definitely prudish Henry James, "The Wings of the Dove" has been given an unexpected and delicious sexual charge.

In one scene, sure to raise the eyebrows of James scholars, since it isn't even hinted at in the book, Carter takes off her costume, including her corset, to have unbridled sex with her paramour. The nudity is the primary reason the film has received an R rating.

But when it became clear that she would have to do it, "I just sort of got on with it. I didn't feel the emotional vulnerability I thought I would, although, having said that, it was a very weird thing.

As a teen-ager, Carter was a model for Yardley facial products. When the work led to acting offers at the time she had to decide about college, her father urged her to go for the film career. "He said, 'Something exceptional is happening to you, and you can't manufacture it for yourself at a later date when it's convenient,' " she recalls.

One of those early acting jobs was as Don Johnson's girlfriend in a couple of episodes of "Miami Vice."

On a few occasions, she's been able to break out of the costume-drama mold and play contemporary characters. She was memorable as Woody Allen's high-strung wife in "Mighty Aphrodite.

Carter has just finished making "The Theory of Flight," another film set in the present, in which she co-stars with Branagh. She plays a victim of Lou Gehrig's disease who has difficulty talking and moving. Branagh is a loser who, after committing a petty crime, is ordered to take care of her as part of his community service.

Branagh, a screenwriter as well as an actor and director, wrote several parts for Thompson when they were together. "If he's writing anything for me, he hasn't told me," Carter says dryly.

"It would be nice to be considered for a wider range of parts, but I'm quite happy sort of trundling along in the independent sector of things, doing parts that are challenging rather than pursuing an abstract notion of stardom."

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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