...Kristin Scott Thomas gets to wear all the best adjectives. And thanks to Four Weddings, she's getting to try on some better roles. By Sheila Johnston
The memory of it still rankled slightly. A while ago, in a west London restaurant, Kristin Scott Thomas overheard someone at a nearby table make a snide crack about her only appearing in obscure movies that no one went to see. The speaker may have been referring to An Unforgettable Summer, actually a rather good Romanian film on the subject of ethnic cleansing which (despite being well-received at Cannes in 1994) was never released in Britain.

Or perhaps he meant Autobus, a small French film about a hijacking directed by Eric Rochant. It was true that after being hailed as the new English rose for her beautiful, selfish aristocrat in A Handful of Dust, Scott Thomas had not been much in evidence on cinema screens (although there had been a steady stream of television work).

That changed suddenly with Four Weddings and a Funeral, which could hardly be attacked for obscurity. It earned her several Best Actress awards for her abrasive but vulnerable character, in love with Hugh Grant but hitched at the end to no less than Prince Charles: many thought her the best thing in the movie. "All she did was sulk in the background and smoke a lot. It was hardly surprising that she didn't have a boyfriend," Scott Thomas says. "I didn't have much screen time, as they say. But now I've been in a famous film, people will look at my other work."

Over the next year or so, it will be difficult to miss her. She appears in Angels and Insects which opens this week (see review, page 8). She has a cameo in French-Canadian theatre director Robert Lepage's first film, the Hitchcockian The Confessional. She will be Lady Ann to Sir Ian McKellen's Richard III. She is an English spy in Brian De Palma's Mission Impossible: "I die on page 25," she says. "But I die in the arms of Tom Cruise, so it's worth it." And she appears opposite Ralph Fiennes in Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient.

Her career, one senses, is taking an upward turn.

The advance word on Kristin Scott Thomas was scary. Here are some adjectives which have figured in the Sunday supplement profiles. Tart. Terrifying. Brittle. Arrogant. And, above all, icy, brrrr. And here is Robert Lepage: "She's a crazy kind of girl. She has this contradiction: she's really a Parisian, but if she wants, she flips and becomes British again. There's something wild about her which Madonna is trying for but doesn't have for real. Kristen has this spontaneity and playfulness; she doesn't take things seriously. She's a funny girl, a really funny girl." Could this, and the thorny rose of the press clippings really be one and the same?

One key is the Anglo-French pedigree. Scott Thomas came from a slightly impoverished British middle-class background but took off to Paris on a whim at the age of 18. There she studied drama, married a French doctor, and has lived in Paris for the past 15 years. Perhaps those hostile press pieces have convinced her to soften up her act. Or perhaps it was that we met in France, on what she now regards as her home turf.

At any rate, she was cold only in the sense of having flu: "Une accumulation de fatigue, de stress, d'excitation, de froid, et de late nights," she says in perfect franglais. But hoarse, pale, muffled to the eyebrows, she still dragged herself from her sickbed for this interview.

She likes living in France and does not regard it as an impediment to her career. "It's a lot easier than it would be the other way round, if I were a French-speaking actress based in England. There's been a long history of actresses with accents in French films - Romy Schneider, Claudia Cardinale, Jane Birkin - and no one seems to mind. I think accents are so important in England because they mean such a lot socially. When you have a foreign accent you can't be classed, so to speak.

"And there also seems to be an inverted snobbery in parts of English society about intelligence. That's something that really struck my husband when he came to meet my family. A lack of intellectual ambition that he saw within the English middle classes. It's depressing."

Both those themes, of class prejudice and anti-intellectualism, are at the core of Angels and Insects. Scott Thomas plays a drab governess in an aristocratic household who emerges from her chrysalis in the course of the film: helping a young naturalist in his research into insect life, she finds an escape route out of the trap to which her station had seemed to condemn her. Based on A S Byatt's novella Morpho Eugenia, the story takes a modernist look at Victorian mores: the survival of the fittest as it applies to 19th-century society.

"I loved the idea of this woman going off up the Amazon in her corset," she says. "I've always been drawn to the blue-stocking type, being totally frivolous myself. My great aunt was one of the first women at Oxford and captained the ladies' cricket team there, so it was not so bizarre to me; it feels right that I should be playing something like that.

"When we see traditional costume drama, it's nice, polite, faded pictures and all very tasteful. It's so kitsch, this one; the thing is a riot of colour. It's a very cruel film. I love Byatt's world, her mysterious details and the thing she has about joints - wrists and knees and shoulders. It's very sensual."

The film's legions of creepy-crawlies did not give her a hard time, although she says, "I got bitten like mad, they managed to get between my corset and my skin." And she was on the whole glad she didn't have to play the scene in which her co-star, Patsy Kensit, is attacked by moths, which required her to have "rubber rings impregnated with female sex pheromones" sewn into her dress to attract the sex-starved male species.

"You never really think that it would make a great film. You know, ants. But, then, what child hasn't watched ants. And it is completely fascinating. We've forgotten about Darwinism; it seems irrelevant. We need to be reminded that these discoveries and huge changes happened so recently - things we take for granted were absolutely revolutionary then."

Scott Thomas's first film was Under the Cherry Moon, directed by the artist formerly known as Prince. It was not a dazzling debut but she remembers it with some amusement. "I'd never been in front of a camera before, and suddenly there I was, the leading lady in a multi-million dollar Warner Brothers picture. When I watched it the other day I had to turn it off. It was so embarrassing, and I am so bad in it. I remember one particularly unkind article that said I was a better cure for insomnia than a glass of warm milk. Oh my God! But thank you Prince, really. So many people saw it, and so many people heard about it - you know, the Turkey of the year - that it really set the ball rolling for me."

A Handful of Dust kept the ball in play, though she says of the film: "I had to fight like mad not to be forever Lady Bloggs serving tea." And since then, some meaty television roles, the leads in those obscure movies and a lot of small but vivid supporting characters in films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon, in which she displayed a disconcerting and consistent knack of stealing the show from under the nose of the notional leading lady. Few directors yet have fully exploited the playfulness that Lepage detected, and her sense of comedy, but these next five films should show something of her range. A rose by any other name ...