A decade of playing costume-drama ingenues against a backdrop of exquisite Tuscan landscapes turned Helena Bonham Carter into a cinematic cliche. But should we now be taking her more seriously?

IN THE first scene of A Room With a View, Helena Bonham Carter pushes open a pair of green shutters high up at the back of Pensione Bertolini in Forster's Florence and glumly wonders what has happened to the view of the Arno. Her face was less lived in back then, her cheeks plumper, but that slightly petulant moue was already there in her ripe plum lips. She flicks a nervous glance over her shoulder, where Maggie Smith fidgets busily, as if reminding herself - she has no formal training - of the array of talent it has been both her burden and her liberation to share the screen with.

The Bonham Carter who now slumps on a sofa in a rather less desirably located hotel off Oxford Street is, at 31, 12 years older. Almost everything that has happened to her in the intervening decade can be traced back to that debut as Lucy Honeychurch. The blood in her veins is an exotic European cocktail, but the combination of two more Forsters, a couple of Shakespeares, and five films set wholly or in part in the imaginary English landscape we call Italy have embedded her in our imagination as an English rose - and an undeflowered one at that. Elizabethan or Edwardian, she became every casting director's favourite dowdy, somewhat modern, often gamine heroine sitting on the live volcano of her own suppressed sexuality, wondering where the rumbles were coming from.

Little acknowledgment comes the way of actors who dislike this kind of ubiquity, or reliability, or apparent narrowness of ambition. When I asked her agent for a complete list of her credits (21 movies, seven television roles, five appearances in the theatre, and four on the radio), at the top of the print-out was a single lonely entry: "Best Actress Genie Awards, Canada 1996 for Margaret's Museum". No one, apart from Canadians, gives her awards, even when she's in films that win barrowloads of them. Indeed, no one seems even to bother to wonder whether she is actually any good or not. She is just there, part of the furniture of our cinema-going lives. So, can Helena Bonham Carter act?

In many ways hers was a classically American initiation, which is to say thoroughly unclassical. Her face was spotted by Trevor Nunn in a magazine, he cast her as Lady Jane Grey (Lady Jane was released, discreetly, after A Room With a View), and she's done it on the hoof ever since. If you measure actorly merit in stage credits, she'll never bowl you over. After a small handful of provincial roles early on, plus one ("miscast") West End appearance in Trelawney of the Wells, plans to go back are at best unformed. "I couldn't give a fag about this thing, 'Oh well, real discipline, real acting happens on stage'," she says. ''But I did enjoy it. And I would go back. But you have to commit yourself for eight months and, frankly, the dosh is nicer in film. And partly, I think, why go and do it if you're just going to be really not given the benefit of the doubt, because of having had it too easy in some people's eyes? It's too tiring after a bit. You just think, I'm not going to lay myself open yet again."

In film, the closest she has come to a genuine accolade was when Woody Allen cast her as his wife in Mighty Aphrodite. Though he'll never win awards for acting himself, Allen's standard practice is to surround himself with talent, and it was Bonham Carter he hired to turn in an impersonation of the no longer available Mia Farrow. And she actually did it very creditably, right from the first scene in which a quartet of wealthy Manhattanites sit around a restaurant table introducing us to their neuroses. ''It was an impersonation,'' she concedes. ''He left it up to me whether I wanted to play it English or American and I thought there was no doubt I'd end up talking American because he likes to have this overlapped and repetitive waffle. I made a vow to myself: Don't sound like Mia Farrow, and by the end I was saying, Oh my God, I'm beginning to sound like Mia Farrow. That experience was certainly like no other."

Buoyed by this foray into the 20th century, Bonham Carter has begun to test her range by choosing parts of a type not normally associated with her. Whereas before she would callowly accept every period role offered, a growing boldness in her choices has gone hand in hand with an understanding of her own market value. When she says, "You're always asked as if it's always a luxury that you can pick and choose your role, whereas the fact is that you're lucky to be offered them in the first place,'' she scrupulously adds that, "that was certainly more the case early on."

Among her recent challenges, Margaret's Museum found her bumping off her neighbours in a remote Nova Scotian mining community. In The Revengers' Comedies, the film version of the Ayckbourn play which was shot last autumn, she is the sassy heiress Karen. In The Theory of Flight, which she is currently filming in Wales, she has ambitiously taken the role (opposite her boyfriend Kenneth Branagh) of a wheelchair-bound victim of motor neurone disease who is losing control of her speech. And most daringly of all, she took a role in Portraits Chinois, a thoroughly French ensemble piece directed by Martine Dugowson, which opens this week. Only George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, in which she plays the sensible girlfriend of an advertising copywriter (Richard E Grant) who wants to give it all up to write bad poetry, was "not very demanding".

The list of British actors who have performed competently in another language is not long. You'd think Bonham Carter would have an advantage, French being literally her mother tongue. In fact it would have been more useful if she hadn't grown up speaking her father tongue. Dugowson, who after her hit debut Mina Tannenbaum was free to cast the net wider, confirms that when Bonham Carter accepted the role "she almost didn't speak French at all. She had the language in her, but didn't practise. But when I met her we did readings of certain scenes from the role and I saw that with work she could do it." "The only problem at times," adds Bonham Carter, who had to put herself through a series of language courses, "was that we were encouraged to improvise and sometimes I hadn't the foggiest idea where they were going, particularly with the slang. I'd just carry on and afterwards say, 'I've absolutely no idea what's going on'."

To explain away the merest of accents, the character she plays is English, but has gone native. Ada works as a designer in a leading Parisian salon, lives with her French script-writing boyfriend, and wonders whether to terminate a pregnancy that would otherwise yield an undoubtedly French child. Her friends, whose comically emotional lives we follow over the course of two years, are French. Dugowson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Chase, has none the less chosen to play on Ada's Englishness. "It was important to distinguish her character from the others, to give her a strangeness. She had to be childish and hard at the same time. She had to have some blockage. She has a very special way of acting that is not the same as the French. It's more marked. She plays a little like an Anglo-Saxon, like Katharine Hepburn. We have a picture of an Englishwoman that is a little eccentric and not very sexual."

While daringly different, in other words, the role also finds Bonham Carter on familiar ground - buttoning it all up again. It comes as no surprise to learn that Dugowson wanted to work with her ever since seeing A Room With a View. In one comic scene at a villa in Corsica, Ada and her old pen-pal Yves talk deep into the night while in her bedroom Yves's wife Nina goes spare with jealousy, on the very French assumption that opposite sexes don't simply talk at two o'clock in the morning. If she'd seen Bonham Carter's other films, she'd have known there was no cause for concern. By no manner of means could Bonham Carter be described as hot to trot. This was clear from the beginning: even as Lucy Honeychurch finally gave into passion in that famous clinch with Julian Sands at the close of A Room With a View she was trying to read a letter over his shoulder. In Bonham Carter's roles, the body is subordinated to the mind. It wasn't especially flamboyant casting that found her playing Santa Chiara to Mickey Rourke's St Francis of Assisi. She doesn't play sexual conquistadors. "There have been parts," she says, "that have come my way which are more sireny or more obviously sexual. But I just haven't chosen to do them because I didn't find them very interesting."

Things are slowly changing in this area too. In The Wings of a Dove, directed by Iain Softley, Bonham Carter plays the dazzling Kate Croy, and in a scene you won't find in Henry James's template she undresses first herself and then Merton Densher (Linus Roache). She has actually been there before - she once played a stripper in a Granada film called Dancing Queen - but is "sure that much will be made" of the scene. "I am required to show the whole and utter object. The whole doo-dah. The full monte. In quite a long lingering take ... although they said they'd recut it. I've never had a problem with the idea of doing nudity as long as there's a reason for it. I was very wary of it being in any way voyeuristic. But the scene as it is is not really about the nudity, it's more about the emotional vulnerability."

It's also, one suspects, about closing a chapter in Bonham Carter's career. Her apprenticeship, acting in the shadow of dames and knights and the extensively stage-reared, is now over. Nunn's Twelth Night, while not a great film, brought confirmation that she can now hold her own against the massed ranks of thespians, even outshine them by underperforming. Where Imogen Stubbs's Viola worked overtime, Bonham Carter's Olivia let the camera do the hard labour. Put her next to a company of French actors, though, and it's clear she still has some ground to cover. While she rummages through her box of facial tricks, they hold to the school of film acting that says, as it were, "moins est plus".

"I'm getting much less self-conscious as an actress as the years go by," she says, "but I've always felt comfortable in front of a camera. It's just like something's watching you and you know what it can pick up. It's a very intimate relationship. It's the opposite thing from stage acting, where the energy is projecting out. In front of film you have to let it in, and be relaxed enough to trust in it. You have to be very narcissistic in one way. Not a vanity thing, but just think you are interesting enough to afford not to do anything, so you can let things come rather than force yourself to be constantly doing something because you're frightened to be boring."

There's a scene at the end of Portraits Chinois where all these precepts are perfectly enacted. Ada has long departed her job at the salon. Her patron is dead, and a younger protegee has assumed control. After a fashion show Bonham Carter nostalgically sneaks up to the atelier for one last glimpse of a life she has left behind. She thinks she sees the ghost of her old boss, and the camera, swinging slowly round, holds steadily on her luminous face as emotions flicker imperceptibly across its suddenly fresh and unfamiliar landmarks. When she turns her head away the light catches the tears welling in her eyes. This is film acting in its absolute essence. The longer Helena Bonham Carter goes on exploring, the more guided tours there will be like this one, deep into the souls of the women she plays.

'Portraits Chinois' (15) is released on Fri.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor