FILMS

HELENA GETS REAL

An ‘English rose’ dresses down to play a coal miner’s wife

Brian D. Johnson January 29 1996
FILMS

HELENA GETS REAL

An ‘English rose’ dresses down to play a coal miner’s wife

Brian D. Johnson January 29 1996

HELENA GETS REAL

FILMS

An ‘English rose’ dresses down to play a coal miner’s wife

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

What’s a nice girl like her doing in a role like this? She was not the most obvious choice. Imagine a swearing, snot-nosed ragamuffin who is married to a carousing Cape Breton coal miner, and Helena Bonham Carter is not the first name that comes to mind.

But the British actress, who made her name in decorous Merchant-Ivory films such as A Room With a View and Howards End, was getting tired of her image. The “English rose” business was wearing thin. So when the script for a little Canadian movie called Margaret’s Museum came her way, she sensed an opportunity. She had never heard of Mort Ransen, the British Columbiabased film-maker who sent it to her unsolicited. “I just got it in the post,” she says, “and I have to hand it to Mort for realizing that somewhere amongst all those bustles there was a Cape Breton^ er busting to get out. I think he just had | an instinct.” S

A good instinct, as it turns out. In Mar| garet’s Museum, as the eccentric heroine Í2 of a tragic romance set in a 1940s Cape Ï Breton mining town, Bonham Carter £ gives the performance of her career. At “ the recent Genie awards in Montreal, lt; she won best actress for her efforts, one 8 of six Genies that went to the movie. §

(The other big winner was Robert I^page’s Le confessionnal, which took four Genies, including best picture.) Margaret’s Museum has also won honors at film festivals in Vancouver, Halifax and San Sebastian in Spainemdash;where it beat out Leaving Las Vegas to win the top prize.

Last week, Bonham Carter, 29, was touring Canada with her movie as part of an intensive publicity blitz. Clearly, this is a performance she is proud of, one that could change the way people see her. All she has to do is get the world to noticeemdash;which would create an exception to the rule that even the most praiseworthy Canadian movies usually die at the box office. “I thought it would be a little art-house film,” she says. “But I’m amazed at how it seems to have appealed to people.”

Curled up on a sofa in a Toronto hotel room, Bonham Carter is dressed in form-fitting black, with scarlet socks and chunky platform shoes that look a bit cartoon-like on her slender, 5-foot, 3-inch frame. She slips on a fuzzy green sweater, lights a cigarette. Her manner is warm and friendly, with no hint of the aloof edge that she often brings to the screen.

It is at once apparent that the English-rose cliché does not really suit her. The dark eyes and the bold line of her brow suggest something more Latin. (In fact, while Bonham Carter takes her name from

her fatheremdash;a retired merchant banker who is a grandson of Herbert Asquith, Britain’s last Liberal prime minister [1908-1916]emdash;her mother, a psychotherapist, is half-Spanish and half-French.) But the accent is cozily English, a soft-petalled voice that fades at the edges, gliding over words as if they barely need to be said.

It is very different from the Celtic lilt that Bonham Carter perfected for Margaret’s Museum. “The Cape Breton accent was tricky,” she says. “It’s a hybrid of different sounds, and there was a lot of arguing because people kept hearing different things. I had a dialect coach, and she didn’t have it in her repertoire. So we went around the shops in Sydney and taped people.” Then she adds, “Accents are one of those things that can be easily impressiveemdash;if you have an ear. It’s just something you have or you don’t. I love accents. As soon as you’ve got the sound of a person, then you’ve got the character, practically. It’s like putting on a new pair of shoes. With a different sound comes a different way of holding yourself.”

As the title character in Margaret’s Museum, Bonham Carter plays a young woman who has turned her back on the world. Margaret’s posture is stubbornly rooted to the floor. She sits with her scruffy legs splayed below her frock, not seductively but defiantly. She has wild hair. And people call her a snot-nosed whore, which is not true,

but she does not seem to mind. Having lost a father and a brother in mining accidents, she has chosen to be an outcast, vowing never to become a miner’s wife. And her embittered mother (Kate Nelligan), a shrew with a coal-black sense of humor, is quick to squelch any suggestion of romance.

But then a generous giant of a man named Neil, portrayed with lyrical charm by Scottish actor Clive Russell, staggers drunkenly into Margaret’s life, playing the bagpipes and promising the moon. She falls in love; they marry. And Neil, who once worked as a miner, reassures her that he will not go back underground. However, after losing his job as a dishwasher, he goes back on his word. In a bittersweet subplot, meanwhile, Margaret’s kid brother (Craig Olejnik) is losing his innocence to the mine manager’s daughter. He is also begging to prove his manhood by going underground, which his uncle (Kenneth Welsh) tries his best to prevent. “What I loved about the script,” says Bonham Carter, “is its inevitability. It’s not about what’s going to happen next, which is pretty obvious. It’s about the character, which is there on the page—all you have to do is play it.”

The movie is based on The Glace Bay Miner’s Museum, a 1979 short-story collection by Sheldon Currie, an English professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. Currie was born in Reserve Mines, Cape Breton, where his father, grandfather and uncles all mined coal. And a ghostly ring of authenticity carries through to the screen.

Ransen’s straightforward direction often lacks subtlety, and the story’s macabre ending is bluntly telegraphed in the opening scene. But the performances speak for themselves. It is also a handsome production, with Vic Sarin’s cinematography worshipping the Cape Breton landscape, and the Celtic rhythms of The Rankin Family braided through the sound track.

Unlike so many Canadian movies that win critical acclaim, Margaret’s Museum is neither arty nor introverted. It is what industry types like to call “an audience film.” And who knows, with Bonham Carter in the lead, it may even get an audience. After the box-office failure of his previous feature, the comedy Falling Over Backwards (1991), Ransen says he was determined to cast a star the next time around. In hiring Bonham Carter, he had to delay filming for a year, until she became available. “I took a chance,” he says, “but I’d looked at everything she’d done, and I felt she could do anything.”

For the male lead, meanwhile, Ransen was looking for an actor who was huge, in the physical sense, and to meet Telefilm Canada funding guidelines, he had to be a Canadian. “The story called for someone of unusual size,” says Ransen “and the pool of Canadian actors just wasn’t big enough.” But the movie expanded to become a Canada-Britain co-production, which allowed him to look farther afield. Bonham Carter sug-

gested Russell, who towers above her at 6 feet, 6 inches. “He’s so huge,” she recalls with a smile. “The first time I saw him, I thought, This is going to be . . . interesting.’ There was something tremendously reassuring about his size. The fact that he’s so seemingly indestructible—Atlas-like.”

With Russell, Bonham Carter performed her first nude scene in a feature film. It takes place in a deserted shower room at the mine. Margaret has never experienced a shower before, and it is a lovely sequence, with the water streaming down their bodies, her legs clasped around his long back. “It was done very tastefully,” says the actress. “I feel self-conscious about my body—it’s not a perfect body—but then you just get on with it. It wasn’t a full bonking scene. That would be harder.” Then she adds, “It’s the people around you who get most embarrassed, the men on the set trying not to watch. It’s terribly technical. You become preoccupied with whether the water’s hot enough. But with a load of people watching, it is strange.” With a modest budget of $4.5 million, the seven-week shoot in 1994 was often rushed, but the atmosphere was convivial. “We all lived in one huge hotel, and there were parties every week

and a lot of dancing,” Bonham Carter recalls. “It makes a huge difference. Right after that, I went to the Woody Allen film, where everyone else lived in New York and I was the stranger.”

It is quite a jump from Cape Breton to Manhattan, where she co-starred with Allen as an errant wife in last year’s Mighty Aphrodite. “I had problems with that role,” she says. “I didn’t like her. There wasn’t really one iota of her that I could identify with.” But playing an American, like playing a Canadian, has helped dispel her image as “the curly-headed, corsetted ingenue—which frankly I’ve grown out of.”

Bonham Carter still lives with her parents in Golders Green, London, where she grew up. “It’s a little unusual,” she laughs, “bordering on the emotionally retarded. But they’re great friends, and last year I spent more time away, on movie sets, and it’s a place I come back to.” The actress refuses to discuss her private life, and she recently batted down rumors that she was involved with director Kenneth Branagh, her co-star in 1994’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. As for future film roles, she says there is another side that she would like to reveal: “I’d like to play a very up-front, modern, sassy, ditzy woman.” Ditzy? ‘Yes, ditzy.” But for Helena Bonham Carter, playing dumb could be the ultimate stretch. □