British Actresses You Should Know: Keeley Hawes

Keeley Hawes stars as the matriarch in "The Durrells in Corfu".(Courtesy of Sid Gentle Films 2016 & MASTERPIECE)

This Sunday marks the debut of a new period drama on Masterpiece called The Durrells in Corfu. Based on the biographical writings of Gerald Durrell, the series chronicles the adventures of a penniless widowed mother and her four headstrong children who attempt to start life anew on a pastoral Greek island in the mid-30’s.

Heading up the cast of this very successful ITV series is Keeley Hawes as the Durrells’ intrepid family matriarch, Louisa. With a career already spanning over a quarter century, this British actress is very much in demand. Besides The Durrells, she’s currently appearing in the new season of the BBC’s The Missing (soon to come to Starz), and recently played Queen Elizabeth in the Hollow Crown sequel that will be making its American debut this December. 

So if you aren’t already familiar with this very talented leading lady, I’ve compiled a sampling of some of her standout roles over the years.

MI-5 (aka Spooks in the UK). Hawes was one of the original cast members in this long-running spy drama. She played Zoe Reynolds, a junior counterterrorism case officer for three series. Despite her excellent undercover skills and dedication to her job, she is arrested for conspiracy to murder and her career is abruptly cut short.

 

ShakespeaReTold is a very clever series of Shakespeare adaptations, each with a modern twist. The Macbeth story takes place in a three Michelin star restaurant owned by a celebrity chef, Duncan Docherty (Vincent Regan). Hawes plays Ella, elegant hostess of the restaurant and the wife of brilliant sous chef Joe Macbeth (James McAvoy). And just as you’d expect, Mrs. Macbeth has a plan to bring her husband the recognition he deserves for his very large contribution to Duncan’s success.

 

Death at a Funeral.  Ms. Hawes co-stars in this 2007 ensemble comedy about a farcical family funeral. Jane tries to support her insecure husband (played by Hawes’ real life spouse, Matthew Macfayden) as he attempts to coordinate a dignified ceremony for his father without much success. Meanwhile, Jane must absorb the passive-aggressive digs of her grieving mother-in-law, Sandra (Jane Asher).

 

Ashes to Ashes. In this 2008 sequel to my favorite British TV series of all time, Life on Mars, Keeley takes on the role of DI Alex Drake. An intelligent and perceptive police detective from the present, Drake is unexpectedly sent back in time to work with the old school, un-PC but fundamentally well-intentioned DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). The two officers butt heads and dodge romantic sparks while Alex simultaneously tries to solve the mystery of her appearance in the 1980’s.

 

Upstairs Downstairs  (The Reboot). In 2010, Hawes portrayed the new mistress of 165 Eaton Place, Lady Agnes Holland. The wife of diplomat Sir Hallam (Ed Stoppard) in pre-WWII London, Agnes oversees the renovation of the once-glorious home and takes on the expected roles of perfect spouse, mother, hostess and strict manager of the house staff.

   

Doctor Who: Time Heist. A sure sign that a British actor or actress has arrived is a guest spot on this nationally beloved science fiction series. In her featured episode, Keeley played the villainous Ms. Delphox, the Head of Bank Security at the Bank of Karabraxos. She set her hench-beast, the Teller, on the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his compadres to prevent them from infiltrating and robbing the bank. Alas her failure led to an unpleasant end.

 

Line of Duty. Probably Keeley’s most impressive role to date has been that of DI Lindsay Denton. Described in a review by the Telegraph as “half-heroine, half-villain, all hypnotic”, Ms. Hawes’ character as a disgraced cop, convicted and stripped of her career is a true dichotomy. You can't help but hate and admire her at the same time. Her powerful performance also earned her a BAFTA nomination for best leading actress in 2015.

        

This list of roles merely scratches the surface of Ms. Hawes’ impressive and varied career - from period pieces and comedies to cop dramas and everything in between. However it’s a good place to start if you’re just getting acquainted with this fine actress. If you are already a fan, please share your favorite performances in the comments.