A tribute to Helen McCrory and her extensive filmography
Following the announcement of Helen McCrory’s death on Twitter by husband Damian Lewis, comes the reflection of a life and career so full of exuberance and love. Although hers was a life cut far too short, it was also one marked by displays of endless generosity and incomprehensible levels talent which will surely be missed by all.
My first exposure to Helen McCrory came with the release of Skyfall in 2012. Something about her portrayal of Clair Dowar MP, a minor role relative to the scale of the film, just mesmerised me.
As Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, she shone. The mother of school bully, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and wife to notorious Death Eater, Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) – Narcissa could easily have been a two-dimensional character. A ‘bad’ character. It’s hard to get away from the fact Narcissa Malfoy was a prejudicial pure-blood, but Helen McCrory brought so much humility and poise to what might have otherwise been an insignificant role.
In 2006, McCrory starred in The Queen, playing Cherie Blair and reprising this role in the 2010 film The Special Relationship. McCrory was tasked with bringing the complicated anti-monarchist to life and did it so well, she was nominated for a London Film Critics’ Circle Award. Additionally, Cherie Blair’s own tribute to Helen McCrory is testament to her work as an actress:
“Rest in Peace Helen McCrory who has died today. My heart goes out to her husband Damian Lewis and their children for their sad loss. I was lucky enough to meet her and I was flattered and humbled that someone so beautiful and talented agreed to play me in the films the Queen and The Special Relationship. She was amazing in Peaky Blinders.” – Cherie Blair, via a post on LinkedIn.
Her talents go far beyond film, stretching firstly to theatre. After 26 years on stage, Helen McCrory played a range of characters from Macbeth’s Lady Macbeth to Rosalind in As You Like It, Libby Haussman in The Last of the Haussmans and Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea. I had the privilege to see her in The Deep Blue Sea in 2016, the latest adaptation of the Terrence Rattigan classic. She was nominated for two awards for this role, and she honestly should have won. McCrory managed to take the difficult plot of the play (a failed suicide attempt) and to take it in her stride, playing the role with poise, vulnerability and incredible skill.
It is her roles on TV which have always enthralled me, however, spanning across multiple genres and audiences.
First appearing on TV screens in 1993, Helen McCrory appeared as Vicki Goodall in Full Stretch – a comedy series which first aired on ITV. In 2000, she played the title character in Anna Karenina, adapted from the novel by Leo Tolstoy. Helen McCrory plays Anna Karenina with a nervous edge, striking a balance between being utterly charming and dangerously close to the edge of insanity in a way I haven’t ever really witnessed before.
Also in 2000, she starred alongside Phil Davis and Kevin McKidd in North Square. Playing no-nonsense barrister, Rose Fitzgerald, McCrory won the London Critics’ Circle Award and Broadcasting Press Guild Award for Best Actress in recognition of the role. Kevin McKidd and Phil Davis have paid tribute to the actress on Twitter, the latter describing her as “brilliant, funny and fun”.
2012 saw McCrory play Julie Ranmore on the ITV drama, Leaving. A disgruntled wife and mother of two, Julie falls for a young man who has recently joined her place of employment and follows the fallout of the complicated relationship they share. This was one of those shows you could watch over and over again, and still be devastated each and every time you watched. Helen McCrory gave this role the same passion and vulnerability she has approached other roles with over the years and made even my young teenage self love the show.
One of her most iconic roles was up next, Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders. It would be hard to imagine such a brilliantly complex character played by anyone else, as Helen McCrory brought out the Shelby family matriarch’s personality as more than just a ‘baddie’. She was a lover, mother, aunt, but also a business woman who was as fearless as the actress who played her.
Further honourable mentions include Fearless (2017) where McCrory plays Emma Banville – a human rights lawyer trying to prove a convicted murderer innocent of his crime. In 2019, she played Kathryn Villiers in MotherFatherSon alongside Richard Gere. Additionally, her role in Quiz (2020) as Sonia Woodley QC saw rave reviews, even for a relatively small role. Co-star Aisling Bea described her as “just so bloody cool” and “down to earth & openly vulnerable”.
In 2017, Helen McCrory was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to drama in the 2017 New Year Honours. But the impact of her life and career spans much further than in acting.
Helen McCrory was an honorary patron of the charity, Scene & Heard, which aims to act as a mentoring project for inner-city children in Somers Town, London. Additionally, she recently championed The Princes Trust, which encourages young people into jobs, education and training.
Most notably Helen McCrory and husband, Damian Lewis were co-founders of the Feed NHS initiative during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pair raised nearly £1m in 2020 to ensure NHS workers in London could receive one hot meal a day from high street restaurants.
During a famous appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, McCrory said the following:
“I realised from a very young age that I would never be original, that I would never be a great artist”
But I think she was wrong. Helen McCrory was a fantastic artist, and what a great shame that such an immense presence and talent was brought to a premature halt.