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Fun Friday–Favorite British Actresses

Friday, March 14, 2008


This week, I’ve divided my faves into two lists: older actresses and younger actresses. The older British actresses (born 1965 or earlier) are those whose maturity and body of work brings a gravitas to anything they do—if they’ve chosen a certain film project, it’s practically guaranteed it’s going to be fabulous.

5. Dame Helen Mirren. Whether she’s The Queen (as in Elizabeth II) or the Queen (in Elizabeth I) or even Nick Cage’s mum in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, there’s no denying the regal grace and nobility Helen Mirren brings to every role she inhabits. I think she’s really the only reason the movie The Queen was as interesting as it was—her acting, the emotion she brought to the role through body language and facial expressions. She definitely deserved the Academy Award she won for it. I’m looking forward to seeing her in the upcoming Inkheart.

4. Geraldine McEwan. Almost twenty years ago, Ms. McEwan brought to life some of the funniest lines Shakespeare ever penned, as Alice—the handmaid in Kenneth Branagh’s quintessential version of Henry V. In recent years, she’s become indelibly linked with the persona of a character penned by another famous author—as Jane Marple in the BBC/PBS Marple series (see numbers 1–12). It is with great sadness that I’ve learned she is not reprising the role for the new episodes coming out in 2008—according to her bio on IMDb, she decided to “retire from the role.” She will be greatly missed. I don’t know if anyone will ever be able to do justice to the character again.

3. Dame Maggie Smith. With her aristocratic stature and the austere air she brings to so many of her characters, there was no more obvious choice for the intimidating-yet-goodhearted Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies than Dame Maggie. But lest we forget, she also has a comedic side, which has been seen in movies such as The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Gosford Park, and the Sister Act films. Oh, and she’s also the mother of Toby Stephens (Mr. Rochester, Jane Eyre, 2006).

Judi Dench & Maggie Smith

2. Dame Judi Dench. Like Helen Mirren, Dame Judi has given us queenly performances (as Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love and as Victoria in Mrs. Brown), but she’s also taken her turn as James Bond’s ultimate “girl”—M in the last four films (and is filming her fifth). From 1992 through 2005—even after winning her Academy Award in 1999—Dame Judi starred in the British sit-com As Time Goes By (which you can probably catch on PBS on Saturday evenings). I’m really excited about her upcoming project, Cranford—a serialization of three novellas by North & South author Elizabeth Gaskell, which is coming to PBS in a couple of months!

1. Dame Julie Andrews. Yes, the hills are alive with The Sound of Music! After getting her start portraying Cinderella in the live TV production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical, Dame Julie was cast in the title role of the Disney film Mary Poppins. When the filmmakers for The Sound of Music, who thought Julie wasn’t attractive enough for the role of Maria, saw dailies of her in Mary Poppins, they were sold—on her looks, voice, and performance. And the rest, as they say, is history. In the forty-odd years since The Sound of Music came out, Dame Julie has tried to break away from this Disney-fied image of who she is, but seems to have embraced it in recent years—giving us Queen Clarisse Renaldi in the Princess Diaries, the nanny in the Eloise movies, and the spoof-filled Shrek movies. I especially loved her in the live television performance of On Golden Pond, which aired a few years ago, which reunited Dame Julie with Christopher Plummer in the roles originally brought to life on the silver screen by Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda. And why is she the top choice on this list? One of the first dates my parents went on was to see The Sound of Music, so that movie has always held a special place in my heart.

    Honorable Mentions: Dawn French (The Vicar of Dibley), Amanda Root (Persuasion 1995), Emma Thompson (Sense & Sensibility 1995), Sophie Thompson (Persuasion 1995), Phyllida Law (Miss Austen Regrets), Alice Krige (Persuasion 2007), Imelda Staunton (HPOOTP and the upcoming Cranford), Sinéad Cusack (North & South), Gemma Jones (Sense & Sensibility 1995), Gretta Scacchi (Miss Austen Regrets), Angela Lansbury (Murder, She Wrote), Cherie Lunghi (The Buccaneers), Jane Seymour (Somewhere in Time), Tilda Swinton (Narnia), Brenda Blethyn (Pride and Prejudice 2005), Natasha Richardson (The White Countess), Miranda Richardson (St. Ives), Lynn Redgrave (The Jane Austen Book Club), and Vanessa Redgrave (Atonement)

These younger British actresses (born after 1965), in many cases, are still trying to find their big break—beyond the circle of those of us who love the BBC costume dramas they’ve appeared in.

5. Olivia Williams: The first thing I ever saw Olivia Williams in was in the 1996 A&E/BBC/Andrew Davies adaptation of Emma, closely followed by The Sixth Sense. But I must say that she wouldn’t have landed on this list (maybe not even the HM list) if it hadn’t been for her portrayal of Jane Austen in Miss Austen Regrets. If you want to know why, read my reaction to the movie.

4. Rosamund Pike. I’ve mentioned before that Rosamund Pike is my favorite actress to have portrayed Jane Bennet in an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice (2005). But I haven’t ever mentioned another movie (which I just received a DVD of in the mail yesterday!) she’s in that I have this strange affinity for: Doom—the shoot ’em up action film based on the violent video game of the same name. Okay, yes, I initially watched Doom because of Karl Urban (and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). But the interplay between Karl’s and Rosamund’s characters (John and Samantha) is what made me want to watch it again . . . and again . . . and again. Her American accent isn’t great—but I saw more of her range as an actress in the film, and I liked what I saw.

3. Justine Waddell. Now we’re getting into the territory of actresses that most people in North America haven’t heard of. Amongst the BBC-watching-set, Justine Waddell is most familiar to us as Molly from Wives and Daughters, Andrew Davies’ adaptation of an unfinished Elizabeth Gaskell novel. She was also in a wonderful adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and played Julia Bertram in the 1999 theatrical-release version of Mansfield Park (the Frances O’Connor version). She also played opposite Ioan Gruffudd in the 1999 BBC version of Great Expectations and made a wonderful Estella. She doesn’t have any current projects listed on IMDb, but they don’t always have BBC’s productions-in-work listed until they’re finished. I’m eager to see her in something else.

2. Daniela Denby-Ashe. Fans of North & South know exactly why Daniela is on my list! She’s the actress who played the character that reformed John Thornton and made us all fall in love with Richard Armitage. One of the things I really like about her is that she (like many other British actresses) isn’t the epitome of high-fashion beauty—like most American actresses. And it made us love John Thornton even more that he’d fall in love with the somewhat plump brunette instead of the skinny blonde. Although we don’t get the series here, she has also been a series regular on the BBC staples East Enders and My Family (with Sir Robert Lindsay—on last week’s list). She also doesn’t have any works-in-progress listed on her page, but I’m sure whatever she chooses to do next, she’ll be great in it.

1. Anna Maxwell Martin is probably one of the most overlooked, under-rated actresses working today. You may have noticed her in the background there in Becoming Jane (she played Cassandra)—I’m of the opinion she should have been cast as Jane. She doesn’t have a really long filmography. But she made her mark with her vastly different roles in North & South (as a secondary character to Daniela Denby-Ashe’s lead) and Bleak House—guess what, another Andrew Davies adapation (maybe after the Masterpiece Classics’ Austen Series ends, I’ll have to do a Fun Friday on all of my favorite Andrew Davies films!). Anna Maxwell Martin led the cast of dozens in Bleak House with a grace that many actresses who’ve been in the business for fifty years wouldn’t have been able to muster (starring opposite my favorite underappreciated actor, Denis Lawson).

    Honorable Mentions: Anna Friel (Timeline), Sonya Walger (LOST), Laura Fraser (A Knight’s Tale), Kelly Macdonald (Gosford Park), Samantha Morton (Elizabeth: The Golden Age), Felicity Jones (Northanger Abbey 2008), Jennifer Ehle (Pride & Prejudice 1995), Victoria Hamilton (Victoria & Albert), Keeley Hawes (Under the Greenwood Tree), Talulah Riley (Pride & Prejudice 2005), Emily Watson (Miss Potter), Michelle Ryan (Jekyll and Mansfield Park 2008), Carey Mulligan (P&P 2005 and Northanger Abbey 2008), Romola Garai (Amazing Grace), Imogen Poots (Miss Austen Regrets), Sophia Myles (Tristan + Isolde), Kate Winslet (Finding Neverland), Cate Blanchett (Lord of the Rings), Minnie Driver (Return to Me), Kate Beckinsale (Emma 1996), Joely Richardson (The Patriot), Emma Watson (Harry Potter), Rachel Weisz (The Mummy/Returns)

Yes, you will notice at least one well-known British actress whose name you feel is missing from this list. Let me state for the record (for those who don’t already know this): I don’t like Keira Knightley. There. I’ve said it. Aside from her horsey-face, bad posture, and strangely flapping lips when she talks, she has the acting range of a teaspoon (to steal a phrase from Harry Potter).

  1. Friday, March 14, 2008 9:29 am

    That is a lot of choices! Well thought. I don’t believe Jennifer Ehle is British though, merely portrayed one.


  2. Caleb permalink
    Friday, March 14, 2008 10:32 am

    You seem to have made a mistake. Kate Winslet should TOPPING the young actresses list, yet you only have her as an honorable mention. The fact that she hasn’t won an Oscar yet is a crime against humanity.

    Other than that one MAJOR flaw, I approve of the rest of this list, particularly the older actresses.


  3. Friday, March 14, 2008 10:38 am

    My bad for not doing enough research–Lew is absolutely correct. Jennifer Ehle was born in North Carolina, and according to information on the Jennifer Ehle fanblog, she says she considers herself to be an American, though she has spent considerable time working and studying in England.

    Thanks, Lew.


  4. Friday, March 14, 2008 10:41 am

    Yes, Kate Winslet is a good actress. There are just a few others I like even better. But I did at least try to cover my bases better with the HMs this week than I did last week. I’m still thinking of British actors I should have mentioned last week (yes, Sean Connery is one of them).


  5. Friday, March 14, 2008 1:01 pm

    Thanks so much for mentioning Toby Stephens was Maggie Smith’s son.

    I saw him for the first time in Jane Eyre and he seemed too familiar for the first time.

    But I’ve seen Maggie everywhere (including Secret Garden and Hook) so now her son’s familiarity makes total sense.


  6. Friday, March 14, 2008 1:59 pm

    Ever since I found out she was his mother, that’s all I can see every time I look at him now!


  7. Friday, March 14, 2008 3:15 pm

    “and she’s also the mother of Toby Stephens”

    That’s news to me, but now… I can certainly see it too. I liked him very much in Jane Eyre.


  8. Friday, March 14, 2008 3:39 pm

    I’ve added a picture of Toby for comparison’s sake!


  9. Friday, March 14, 2008 4:06 pm

    Anna Maxwell Martin definitely gets my vote for the most believable Esther Summerson. I was also quite taken with Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock. Excellent casting in this 2005 version of Bleak House.


  10. Friday, March 14, 2008 6:44 pm

    Good choices. Being a Brit myself, I think I would have chosen the same.

    Both Maggie Smith & Geraldine McEwan played Miss Jean Brodie – Maggie won the Oscar in the movie. Years later, Geraldine played Jean Brodie in a marvelous British TV series.


  11. Friday, March 14, 2008 9:29 pm

    Julie actually sings a little bit in Princess Diaries 2. With Raven unfortunately. But still… She sang!!!! It’s worth watching just for that one moment. It was so wonderful and so beautiful to see her sing again that I sat there and cried.


  12. Friday, March 14, 2008 9:46 pm

    I love Judi Dench in As Time Goes By. One of my favorite series of all time.


  13. Friday, March 14, 2008 11:06 pm

    I’m familiar with most of the older actresses, but the younger ones, not so much. Are most British actresses of note awarded a title?


  14. Friday, March 14, 2008 11:19 pm

    Yes, Georgiana. From what I can find online, these Dames were all granted their titles for their acting successes.


  15. Saturday, March 15, 2008 3:53 pm

    Oooh, great lists. I love that Anna Maxwell Martin is #1 on the younger actresses lists…she is so talented! And I almost didn’t recognize Daniela Denby-Ashe from her “modern” picture! LOL!

    Toby Stephens is the spittin’ image of his momma, isn’t he? I think it’s those cheekbones & the jawline, LOL! I wonder if there are any pictures of his dad online? Would be curious to see him…


  16. Saturday, March 15, 2008 4:04 pm

    I think part of the problem with the DDA picture is that she’s much younger in that headshot than in N&S. But that was the best shot I could find online.


  17. Monday, March 17, 2008 11:04 pm

    What about Kristin Scott Thomas? She’s neither “old” nor “young”, but just elegant.

    Anna Maxwell Martin is also my favorite. Her performance in Bleak House motivated me to read the 1,000 page novel.

    And yes, Andrew Davis is one talented screenwriter…looking forward to watching his S & S on PBS in the next few weeks!


  18. Tuesday, March 18, 2008 8:52 am

    Kristin Scott Thomas is another one I don’t particularly care for—I think a lot of that has to do with the roles she’s chosen: from The English Patient (hated the movie) to the conniving money-grubber in Gosford Park (love the movie, can’t stand KST’s character).


  19. Friday, March 21, 2008 11:49 pm

    I’m not quibbling with your list, which is good. Julie Christie, so underrated, is one of my faves. Emma and Sophie Thompson are always watchable, especially on late night t.v., for they possess such wit. I rather like Juliet Stevens too. The problem is, once you start listing British actors, you just can’t stop. Kate Winslet is without peer and should be at the top. Gemma Jones, Harriet Walter. Janet McTeer. I’ve got to stop!


  20. Dennis Hanagan permalink
    Monday, April 7, 2008 6:41 pm

    Surely you could post a more attractive photo of Judy Dench than what you now show!


  21. Thursday, April 23, 2009 4:32 am

    “Kristin Scott Thomas is another one I don’t particularly care for” You can’t have seen I’ve loved you so Long. French film with her in the central role. Wonderful story and luminous acting from her.


  22. Dolores Quinlisk permalink
    Friday, February 19, 2010 3:56 pm

    You haven’t mentioned Plowright. And another good British actress in a movie I can’t remember the title of, but I think it is charming. It’s about an ambassador’s widow who decides to leave London and rent a house in, I think, Hampstead. She has it remodled and enjoys the friendship with several older men, before she dies.
    It has so many great lines, and I believe is an adeptation of a novel. Can you help me out with the title of the movie?


  23. Thursday, March 31, 2011 4:11 pm

    Would you pleases let me know if these 2 British actress are related; Geraldine McEwan & Justine Waddle. They look enough alike 2 be grandmother & granddaughter. Thanks a fan from the US.



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