Helena Bonham Carter is preparing to torment Harry Potter as Bellatrix Lestrange this week, with the arrival of the first film in the two-part finale, 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.' In fact, this is just one of many roles the actress has inhabited over the last year. She played the Red Queen in 'Alice in Wonderland,' Queen Elizabeth in 'The King's Speech,' plus the upcoming '60s fest 'Toast' and the epic and upcoming 'Hallows' finale. Her work is so varied and plentiful these days that it's hard to believe that she's been gracing the silver screen for the last twenty-five years.
As soon as she stepped foot into the 'Room with a View,' Bonham Carter crafted an ongoing link to worlds of the past. Films like 'Lady Jane' and 'Francesco' solidified her position as the go-to British actress for period pieces, allowing her to travel in and out of time with ease and grace. She embodied the fragile doom of Ophelia in 'Hamlet' as easy as the mirth of 'Twelfth Night.' She stood out in 'Howard's End' and found passion and horror in 'Frankenstein.'
What made Bonham Carter such an interesting cinematic figure over those early years was not her diversity, but how she could implement levels of madness and depth into any occasion, whether it's the corseted world of the past, or a sex comedy like 'Getting it Right' or 'Women Talking Dirty.' It wasn't so much that she used the same performance for each role, but knew how to adapt these characterizations in subtle and charming ways.
When the world at large saw her as the woman of the past, she applied the manic, unstable tendencies to 'Fight Club' as Marla Singer, a deeply troubled woman who becomes the grounding and somewhat rational force in The Narrator's world. This surely led her to the world of Burton and 'Planet of the Apes,' where her career would evolve into the go-to star for the filmmaker's highly stylized and eerie worlds ('Big Fish,' 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,' 'Corpse Bride' ...).
But though Burton could bring her romantic partnership and mainstream staying power, her best role is the one that pulls her out of the trends. It's the one that allowed her to temporarily hang up the wide-eyed weirdness, the evil flamboyance and the historic dalliances -- the role that offered her the chance to implement her subtly perfect facial expressions and eye contact to a modern and realistic setting -- Hans Canosa's 'Conversations with Other Women.'
Written by Gabrielle Zevin, 'Conversations' focuses on a man and woman (never referred to by name, played by Aaron Eckhart and Bonham Carter) who begin a conversation at a wedding. A film looking to capture the many aspects of a chance encounter -- how someone speaks, how the other person reacts, how minds think of the past and imagine what would be different if they'd taken a different approach -- Canosa tells the tale with a split screen. From moment one, the view is fragmented into two halves where, for the most part, each lead inhabits their own space.
Though much of the charm of the film is due to the intensely organic, comedic and personal nature of Zevin's script and the opportunity to see both faces during most of the dialogue, it's a film whose ultimate and true power resides in the performances. Bonham Carter's Woman evokes both sides of any number of binaries. She reveals pain in sarcasm and comedy, nervousness during bouts of strength, utter truth and emotional rawness alongside half-truths and obtuse responses.
While any scene from the film is ripe for review, so much of is said about the nature of their relationship and motivations when the man asks the woman to dance. As the last dance is announced, Bonham Carter visibly arches her back away, turning her head, then looking down. In that moment she must decide how the night will end -- wondering if her wishes will come true, if she should continue the banter -- mentally running through the obstacles while physically distancing herself -- even in that subtle way -- in anticipation of what will come next.
She breathes, she ums, and it's as if she then swings back into sarcastic gear, having found a way to stomach her feelings and return to the emotionally safe banter. He looks at her, but she cannot look at him and she goes on and on about how she's too old to dance. Her eyes cannot meet the possibilities of what will happen, and when he makes his intentions more clear, she can't help but be raw and honest: "I was just stalling ... I didn't know how I was going to answer." By then, however, even their jokes or simple comments relay truths. By admitting that she was stalling, she not only admits to the act, but acknowledges that there's more to this moment than just a simple dance.
Absolutely every moment, look, pause and word reveals something more. The way they hold each other's hands during the dance reveals their chemistry. Their humor is a way to express deeper emotions hidden between the lines, and Bonham Carter does a beautiful job balancing her ties to her life back in London and the romantically surreal edge to her experience with the man.
When an actor receives complains about wooden acting, it's films like this, and performances like Bonham Carter's, that they should visit. Her performance is not a case of melodrama and exacerbating actions to imbue wordless information. She has a gift for recognizing the subtleties in our real actions and reactions -- the ways we hold ourselves and how it reveals something about our feelings and thoughts -- often in a way we're not conscious of.
Though she may be excellent as manic crazy women and charming when thrust into the past, it's all due to this raw and genuine ability to evoke natural experiences, and her talent is never so clear, nor so engaging, as it is with 'Conversations with Other Women.'