The XX Factor

In Praise of Natalie Dormer, Born Adventurer

Natalie Dormer curls her lip on the red carpet, and it’s thrilling.

Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

When word came down on Wednesday that Natalie Dormer had been tapped to play Irene Adler, the only woman who ever outwits Sherlock Holmes, on Elementary, my main reaction was annoyance that I hadn’t thought of it first. Adler, an adventurer and actor whom other Sherlock stories have struggled to adapt, is the epitome of the kind of character Dormer’s been perfecting on television, most recently in Game of Thrones: a woman who lives by her wits and body and is acutely aware both of the limits of those resources and of the care that needs to be taken to deploy them.

Dormer, who first came to prominence playing Anne Boleyn on The Tudors, was easily the best part of a historical drama with the dubious distinction of making the sight of a naked Jonathan Rhys Meyersget boring. Introduced to court as the daughter of a nobleman, Dormer’s Anne seduces King Henry with a look that’s simultaneously deferential and direct. “There’s something deep and dangerous in you, Anne, those eyes of yours are like dark hooks for the soul,” her father tells her, recognizing both the power and the risk of her frankness. In an era where the safest path for a woman might be to let her husband largely ignore her, Anne’s ability to emotionally engage the king is both useful and dangerous: He can learn to hate her as easily as he falls in love with her.

Likewise, in Game of Thrones, Dormer plays a woman who is more than her fertility. Margaery Tyrell, the daughter of an extremely wealthy family, supplies both food and military force to the regime she’s marrying into. Acutely aware of how to manipulate public opinion, she visits orphanages to tell children who lost parents in the regime’s wars that their dead fathers are heroes. And when she finds out that her future husband, King Joffrey, is a sadist, Margaery maneuvers carefully around him, pretending that she’s submissive and ladylike while also implying that she might share his love of violence. 

“I imagine it must be so exciting to squeeze your finger here and watch something die over there,” Margaery tells Joffrey, inspecting his new crossbow.

“Do you think you could? Kill something?” Joffrey asks her excitedly.

“I don’t know, Your Grace. Do you think I could?” she responds in an expert blend of sex and violence.”Would you like to watch me?” What makes these scenes exciting is both the risk and artifice involved. The audience knows that Margaery is acting, and the possibility that Joffrey could see through her is simultaneously horrifying and exciting. These are tricky scenes, and Dormer picks her way through them carefully, using her bow lips and fluttering eyelashes like surgeon’s scalpels to stimulate emotional reactions.

And Irene Adler, even in Victorian London, has more freedom and capacity than either of these medieval women on the marriage market. Where Sherlock turned Adler into a dominatrix who seemed in love with Holmes (and ultimately needed him to rescue her from terrorists), I hope Elementary recognizes the asset it has in Dormer. After years of playing women constrained by court politics but with the hearts and talents of born adventurers, it will be exciting to see Dormer portray a woman with an agenda that’s entirely her own and who gets to win at the end, rather than facing the executioner’s block or a political marriage.