Brow Beat

Beyond Bellatrix

She’s got grotesques down pat, but Ocean’s 8 smartly subverts Helena Bonham Carter’s kooky-Gothic-witch image.

Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech, Ocean’s 8, A Room With a View, and Howard’s End.
Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech, Ocean’s 8, Howards End, and A Room With a View.
The Weinstein Company, Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Cinecom Pictures, Sony Pictures Classics.

Casting an entry in the Ocean’s series—which resumes with the new Ocean’s 8 after an 11-year break—must be a bit like the first act of an Ocean’s movie. Putting the team together isn’t just a matter of choosing good people; they have to be the right people, and the right balance. With Ocean’s 8, that means a couple of cool customers as the team leaders (Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett) and a bunch of specialists (Awkwafina, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, and Rihanna) lending able support by doing what they do best (mostly doing what they do best, anyway—not giving Kaling more chances to be funny is one of the film’s odder choices).

Then there are the wild cards. Anne Hathaway has rightly earned praise for her fun, and merciless, depiction of a self-obsessed film star. Hathaway’s been breezy and fun before, but never quite this breezy or fun. But the quieter revelation comes from Helena Bonham Carter, although revelation might not be the word so much as reminder. Bonham Carter’s never wanted for work, but, at least in this century, she hasn’t taken on a tremendous variety of roles. With the rare exception, like her Oscar-nominated turn in The King’s Speech, Bonham Carter has been a go-to for grotesques. A generation who came of age encountering her as the villainous Bellatrix Lestrange could be forgiven for thinking that’s all she can do.

That’s not to suggest Bonham Carter can’t knock it out of the park in a period frock and a ratty wig, even in sometimes-iffy movies. She’s a comic highlight as the crooked innkeeper in the mostly blah Les Miserables, and over-the-top fun as a one-legged madam in The Lone Ranger. But she’s great in predictable ways. Need a Miss Havisham for your Great Expectations adaptation? Get Bonham Carter.

Bonham Carter’s career has a clear dividing line. There’s the work she did before partnering, both professional and romantically, with director Tim Burton, and the work she did after. The two met while working on Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes remake. They stayed and worked together for 13 years, during which time Bonham Carter played a witch, a corpse bride, a vampire-obsessed psychologist, a meat-pie-shop owner with undiscriminating tastes in ingredients, a loving mom (a rare departure from type), and Alice in Wonderland’s Red Queen. The last uses computer-generated effects to place a caricatured rendition of her head atop an undersize body. She yells a lot, and she’s great fun in the middle of a movie that’s mostly no fun at all. But it’s the sort of role that makes you wonder if this is really the best use of a great actress’s time.

Bonham Carter’s pre-Burton work established her as an actress with a much broader range. She broke through with Merchant-Ivory’s adaptation of A Room With a View and for a time became a costume-drama regular, with a particular affinity for E.M. Forster. Her Ophelia in Mel Gibson’s 1990 adaptation of Hamlet foreshadows the darkness and madness, if none of the humor, that would become her specialty, but to see her as the heartbreakingly idealistic Helen in Howards End is to realize how far beyond such roles her talent stretches.

If that was Phase One, capped by her unnerving work as the self-destructive Marla in Fight Club, and the Burton-grotesque years were Phase Two, Ocean’s 8 could be the beginning of Phase Three. Bonham Carter plays Rose Weil, a financially troubled fashion designer considered by most to be a relic of the ’90s. She’s enlisted in a scheme to heist a rare necklace from the Met Gala, one to be worn by Hathaway’s Daphne Kluger—but only if Rose can win the job of dressing her and help her persuade Cartier to loan them the necklace, which has been kept in a vault for 50 years.

Like Hathaway, Bonham Carter uses Ocean’s 8 to play off, and play with, her public image. On her days off, Rose wears goth-y loungewear. Attending the gala, she dons a floral headpiece that looks like it belongs at the head table of a wedding reception. Her designs, and the clothes she chooses for herself, look like they’ve been assembled from an exclusive Edwardian thrift shop.

Bonham Carter makes Rose more than a collection of ruffles and quirks, however, investing her with vulnerability and a low-key sense of desperation. Where most of the other characters seem to have joined the team for money or kicks, Rose needs the score to work if she’s going to avoid a prison sentence for tax evasion. She knows that fashion has moved on and survival means nothing less than pulling it back in her direction, convincing the world, or at least one vain actress, that what looked edgy and retro in the ’90s is due for a comeback. Bonham Carter turns Rose into a woman powered by nervous energy whose survival instincts are just strong enough to let her mask that she’s falling apart inside. The film gives others more screen time, but few can steal a scene half as well. She’s played much stranger characters, but few as daffily endearing.

Is this the beginning of a Bonham Carteraissance? It could be. When The Crown leaps forward for Season 3, she’ll play Princess Margaret, taking over a part originated by Vanessa Kirby. It seems like a case of smart casting rather than obvious casting, the sort of role Bonham Carter could play memorably while drawing on strengths she hasn’t had much of a chance to use in recent years. And, as Ocean’s 8 hits theaters, stories have begun to surface about the producers of the James Bond films hoping to cast her as the villain in Danny Boyle’s upcoming entry in the series. Maybe she’ll take the opportunity to play it big and broad, creating a memorable oddity of the sort she’s played so often as of late. Or maybe, as in Ocean’s 8, she’ll use it as a chance to show us how much else she can do.