Categories Print Media Tributes

Helen McCrory: engaging, enthralling, always magnetically watchable

The exquisitely talented actor shone at playing complex, intelligent women with a seemingly effortless skill

by Mark Lawson | April 16, 2021 | The Guardian

Extreme … Helen McCrory in the National Theatre’s 2014 production of Medea.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
It seems fitting that one of Helen McCrory’s final screen performances in a career devastatingly truncated by her death at 52 was as a barrister. In last year’s ITV drama Quiz, she played Sonia Woodley QC, hired to defend Major Charles Ingram and his wife Diana, accused of conspiring to steal the titular prize in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? through a code based on studio coughing.

With a majority of viewers likely to be convinced of the Ingrams’ guilt (from media coverage of the case in 2003), McCrory as Woodley in episode three presented an alternative interpretation so engagingly and persuasively that the previous two episodes seemed to be cast into doubt.

It’s unsurprising she was able to achieve this, because McCrory at her best (which was pretty much any time she stepped on stage and screen) was a defence counsel of an actor – silkily taking characters to whom audiences are unlikely to warm and making a case for them with such forensic detail and engaging presence that, by the end, the jury would be at least hung.

Her last two appearances at the National Theatre were as Medea in a 2014 production of Euripides’s tragedy and Hester Collyer in a revival of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 modern classic, The Deep Blue Sea. Neither woman makes easy friends with the audience. The Greek murders her children, ex-husband and his new wife; the Englishwoman capriciously abandons a good but conformist man for an exciting but feckless lover, to be left alone, self-pitying and self-destructive. But McCrory’s eloquent, enthralling pleas for mitigation showed us the factors – Hester’s desire for sexual transcendence, Medea’s arrogant inability to accept betrayal – that forced the women to their extreme acts.

Helen McCrory: looking back at the life of the ‘fearless’ star – video obituary

Another contentious female figure, Cherie Blair – although only the most anti-Labour voices would demonise her to the level of the previous two – gave McCrory two of her most memorable movie performances, in The Queen (2006) and its sequel, The Special Relationship (2010). Screenwriter Peter Morgan wrote the Blairs as villains, but McCrory, giving a dramatic portrayal rather than an impersonation, added notes of Cherie’s high intellectual and emotional intelligence.

Modern culture is so weighted towards populism that many obituaries will emphasise McCrory’s presence in a small role in the Harry Potter films, as Narcissa Malfoy. But she should be remembered as a great emotional performer – compelling not just in the Euripides and Rattigan but also in a fine 2004 Donmar theatre production of Harold Pinter’s ghostly love story, Old Times.

It is tiny consolation for the shockingly young loss of an exquisitely talented actor that her work was superb to the end. Soon after Quiz last year, she gave the standout performance in David Hare’s four-part BBC2 Westminster TV thriller Roadkill, as a Conservative prime minister who combined the formidableness of Margaret Thatcher with the chilly elegance of Theresa May, without being an impression of either, but an original character.

In both cases, TV critics noted that she had effortlessly stolen her episodes, despite playing relatively small roles. The comments captured her magnetic watchability, but TV and theatre audiences have had stolen from them the great shows she would have gone on to do.


Leave a reply