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Helena Bonham Carter: Her 10 best performances, ranked from Harry Potter to Fight Club

Bonham Carter is one of Britain’s biggest acting exports

Tom Murray,Inga Parkel
Tuesday 31 January 2023 06:29 GMT
The Crown's Helena Bonham Carter reveals her meeting with the ghost of Princess Margaret

Helena Bonham Carter has been gracing our screens for almost 40 years now.

Her often-wild, curly hair, thick eyebrows and loud cackle have become synonymous with a slightly off-the-wall character performance.

She was, however, first typecast as a virginal “English rose” in films such as A Room With a View (1985), helping to reinforce the Hollywood stereotype of the English as tea-sipping, bonnet-wearing toffs.

In fairness to the casting agents, though, arisocrat is a role Bonham Carter was born into. Her great-grandfather is H H Asquith, prime minister of the United Kingdom during the first half of World War One. Her uncle, Mark Bonham Carter, once dated Princess Margaret – a figure she would later play in The Crown.

Nevertheless, the quaint Victorian heroine shtick was never going to last.

“I drink booze, I smoke, and I’m hooked on caffeine. I actually have been known to swear at times and belch and even raise my voice when provoked. And I’m not physically repressed!” She told a reporter ahead of her role as a chimpanzee in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001). “[The film] might be my ultimate attempt to put the corset to bed.”

Planet of the Apes also marked the beginning of a collaboration with Burton that would come to define Bonham Carter’s career and personal life. The pair conceived two children and eight films before officially separating in 2014.

Despite her range of characters over the years, Bonham Carter will perhaps always be best known as Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter franchise. But is it her finest work?

The Independent ranks her best performances across film and television below.

Helena Bonham Carter and director Tim Burton (Getty Images)

10. Lady Tottington in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (2005)

OK, I’m sorry, but this film had to get a shout-out if only for the line: “Just take a look at my wife’s brassicas, ravaged in the night!” In all seriousness, this is hands-down the best Wallace & Gromit tale and Bonham Carter is perfect as the carrot-topped, plasticine aristocrat, Lady Tottington. The Were-Rabbit showcases Bonham Carter’s ability to bring a lot of humour to her roles as well as excellent voice work.

9. Joan Potter in Toast (2010)

Bonham Carter went Brummy for her role as the wicked stepmother of chef Nigel Slater in the adaptation of his popular 2003 memoir Toast. She is deliciously evil as she fights with Nigel (Freddie Highmore) for his father’s attention. Tom Keogh wrote for The Seattle Times: “The movie has three things deserving of adoration: spectacular lemon-meringue pies, the songs of Dusty Springfield, and Helena Bonham Carter.”

8. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in The King’s Speech (2010)

While The King’s Speech was a fairly shameless bit of Oscar bait, Bonham Carter rightly deserved her Academy Award nod. If her performance as the Queen Mother wasn’t impressive enough, consider the fact that Bonham Carter was filming two films at once: The King’s Speech on the weekends, and Harry Potter during the week. She ultimately lost out on the Oscar to Melissa Leo for The Fighter, but did, at least, secure a Bafta for Best Supporting Actress.

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Colin Firth as King George VI with Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in ‘The King’s Speech’ (AP)

7. Madame Thénardier in Les Misérables (2012)

Bonham Carter performed her role as Les Misérables’ secondary antagonist Madame Thénardier with vigour. Together with her domineering husband (played by Sacha Baron Cohen), she owns a grimy inn where the couple swindle their patrons in plain sight. When Madame Thénardier comes into the unwanted guardianship of young Cosette – whose mother, Fantine, mistakes Thénardier for a good woman – Bonham Carter once again adeptly fulfils the role of the evil stepmother.

6. Marla Singer in Fight Club (1999)

Bonham Carter showed her true colours as an actor for the first time in Fight Club as Tyler Durden’s bonkers, chainsmoking love interest, Marla Singer. The wild hair, endless cigarettes, and sunglasses have become a feature of the actor’s work ever since.

5. Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter star in ‘Sweeney Todd’ (Warner Bros)

The intricate, gothic costuming and makeup for Bonham Carter’s sinister villain in Sweeney Todd shared an eery resemblance to that of her Harry Potter character, Bellatrix Lestrange. The film is the second of five occassions that Johnny Depp, Bonham Carter and Burton collaborated as a triumvirate – and it is arguably their best. Bonham Carter undertook three months of singing lessons for the film, and it shows.

4. Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View (1985)

Bonham Carter’s breakout role as Lucy Honeychurch in James Ivory’s adaptation of E M Forster’s 1908 novel is still one of her best. The film has recently been in the news due to the disappearance of Bonham Carter’s co-star, Julian Sands, who was last seen hiking in the Mt Baldy region in California. The all-star cast also includes Dame Judie Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, and Daniel-Day Lewis. It’s a credit to Bonham Carter’s talent that at just 19 years old, she was able to shine among this plethora of acting royalty. A Room With a View went on to win three Oscars. Sadly, however, none in the acting category.

3. Princess Margaret in The Crown (2019-2020)

With five seasons under its belt, there have been a fair few actors to portray Princess Margaret in the hit Netflix series. Most recent is Lesley Manville who took on the role first played in The Crown by Vanessa Kirby – but it is Bonham Carter’s work in seasons three and four that is the best. The actor brilliantly captured a woman struggling in her sister’s shadow; a woman with both a penchant to party and a sadness dwelling beneath the surface. “Helena has the rare combination of spirit, intelligence, vulnerability, and the vivid, electric talent required for this role,” creator Peter Morgan said of his star.

Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret in ‘The Crown’ (Netflix)

2. The Wings of the Dove (1997)

While The Wings of the Dove is perhaps one of Bonham Carter’s lesser-known films, her part in the romance drama as Kate Croy is her first Oscar-nominated performance. The film beautifully showcases Bonham Carter’s range as she plays young Kate, an outwardly charismatic and unassuming woman who comes up with a cruel money-making scheme.

1. Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter franchise (2007, 2009, 2010, 2011)

Bellatrix Lestrange encapsulates everything one desires from a Bonham Carter performance. Bellatrix is mad, of course. She is perhaps the maddest of all the actor’s characters, which allows the actor ultimate freedom – such as the freedom to stride around singing, “I killed Sirius Black” at the top of her lungs. Bellatrix is dramatic, over-the-top and should go down in history as one of the fantasy genre’s greatest villains of all time. It might not be Bonham Carter’s most serious work, but somehow she manages to upstage Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort. That alone means Bellatrix is worthy of first place in this ranking.

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