British Actresses You Should Know: Helen McCrory

Helen McCrory in the greatest "Peaky Blinders" look ever (Photo: Netflix/Caryn Mandabach Productions)
Helen McCrory in the greatest "Peaky Blinders" look ever (Photo: Netflix/Caryn Mandabach Productions)

We all have those actors whose work we’d watch, no matter what it was. Powerful prestige drama? Scary supernatural tale? Super dated period piece? Random episode of some show you’ve never heard of before, just because they have a bit part in it? Check, check and check. We’ve all been there.

British actress Helen McCrory is one of those performers. (At least for me, at any rate.) I will honestly watch this woman do anything, and not feel bad about it for a single second. Luckily, McCrory is not only ridiculously talented, but one of those actors who’s been in the entertainment business long enough to have a rather significant back log of both mainstream and niche sorts of roles. You’d be surprised how many things you’ve probably seen her in without realizing it.       

Now that McCrory has been tapped to star in upcoming Masterpiece production Roadkill, it seems like a perfect time to look back at some of her more interesting and compelling roles. (FYI: These are ordered chronologically, to keep me from playing favorites!)

Charles II: The Power and the Passion. This star-studded period piece tells the story of King Charles II's time on the throne, his 10-year exile from Oliver Cromwell's England, and his triumphant return. McCrory plays Barbara Villiers, the Countess of Castlemaine, who also happened to be the most notorious of Charles’ many mistresses, by whom she had five children, all of whom were acknowledged and subsequently ennobled. Her influence was so great that she was often referred to as “The Uncrowned Queen”. 

Rufus Sewell stars as King Charles, alongside many British acting favorites, including Martin Freeman, David Bradley, Rupert Graves, Sean Biggerstaff and Dame Diana RiggWhen this drama aired in the U.S. it was broadcast on A&E under the name The Last King, and it was heavily edited. (Over an hour of footage was cut!)

Helen McCrory in "Charless II" (Photo: BBC)
Helen McCrory in "Charless II" (Photo: BBC)

Doctor Who: The Vampires of Venice. As almost every British actor working today has done at some point or other, McCrory has played a fairly significant guest role on popular sci-fi series Doctor Who. She appeared during Matt Smith’s run as the eleventh Doctor, in a Season 5 episode entitled “The Vampires of Venice,” which featured the Doctor, Amy and Rory meeting, you guessed it, a squadron of mysterious vampires.

McCrory played Rosanna Calvierri, the matriarch of the group, who of course turn out to not be vampires at all, but a group of colonizing aliens fleeing a crack in time. It’s fun, and McCrory gets to destroy a lot of scenery in the way that only she can.

 

The Harry Potter Franchise. The Harry Potter films are fabulous for several important reasons, not just because they brought J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard to life, but because they pretty much employed half of the British entertainment complex at one point or other during the near-decade they were filming.

McCrory played Narcissa Malfoy - wife to the smarmy Lucius, mother to Harry’s nemesis Draco, and younger sister to total psycho Bellatrix Lestrange. Narcissa’s role is remarkable if only in that she eventually chose protecting her family over loyalty to the Dark Lord Voldemort, telling a very specific lie about Harry Potter which helps the good guys win in the end.

 

Medea. In addition to her film and television work, McCrory is also a regular stage performer. In 2014, she starred in the National Theatre’s production of Medea, playing the titular character in Euripides’ great tragedy. The play follows the story of the wife of the Greek hero Jason, who takes revenge when her husband leaves her by slaying their two children. Yeah, it’s pretty dark and miserable, but Medea remains one of the truly great stage roles for women. So of course McCrory pretty much just crushed it.

McCrory’s Medea received glowing reviews from the British press and her performance was filmed as part of the popular National Theatre Live program, so keep an eye out for encore screenings in your area.

 

A Little Chaos. Alan Rickman directed this 2014 period drama, in which he is reunited with his former Sense & Sensibility co-star, Kate Winslet. Rickman plays French King Louis XIV and the story is set during the construction of the famous gardens at the Palace of Versailles. Winslet is a gardner named Sabinne de Barra, who falls in love with the project's landscape designer, Andre de Notre (played by Matthias Schoenaerts). 

McCrory plays de Notre's unfaithful, aristocratic wife, who revels in her many affairs but selfishly doesn't want her husband involved with Sabine. She's one of the most entertaining parts of the film, as she alone seems to understand that in a story this melodramatic, you just sort of have to give in and go for it. Which she does, with gusto. 

 

The Woman in Black: Angel of Death. Set 30 years after the first The Woman in Black film from 2012 (which starred Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe), 2015’s The Woman in Black: Angel of Death aimed to cash in on the 2010’s general love of horror franchises by making a sequel. (See also, all those movies about The Nun.) Unfortunately, this film isn’t very good, though it has jump scares aplenty for those that enjoy such things.

When a group of orphaned children are forced to move from their home in London, caretakers Eve (Phoebe Fox) and Jean (McCrory) bring everyone to the desolate and eerie British countryside. 40 years after Arthur Kipps left. Obviously the Eel Marsh House hasn’t changed in all that time, and kids start to go missing and die almost immediately, amid generically creepy shots of creaking furniture and dust-covered toys.

McCrory admirably does what she can with a largely pointless script, giving her prickly headmistress character some appealingly human layers. But if you’ve seen – or even read a synopsis of – the first film, there’s not a lot that’s new or different here.

 

Penny Dreadful. Showtime’s gritty horror series drew upon many famous characters from 19th-century British and Irish fiction to tell the story of a world in which figures such as Frankenstein, Dorian Grey, Mina Harker are actually real people and supernatural beings such as vampires and werewolves exist. Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, Rory Kinnear, Harry Treadaway, Billie Piper, Josh Hartnett and more star, and the drama is meant to emulate the infamous lurid “penny dreadfuls” from which it gets its name. (It’s also a ton of fun, even if it’s creepy as heck and occasionally super gory.)

McCrory played the villainous Evelyn Poole during the show’s second season, a possibly immortal witch who bathes in blood and murders people fairly indiscriminately. It’s a horrifying role, and she’s fantastic in it. (She’s also singing that haunting song in the series’ trailer. Amazing.)

Peaky Blinders. This period crime drama is based upon the exploits of the infamous Peaky Blinders gang that operated in Birmingham, England during the aftermath of World War I. Cillian Murphy stars as gang leader Tommy Shelby, opposite Paul Anderson, Sophie Rundle, Annabelle Wallis and more.

McCrory generally steals the show as the ferocious Aunt Polly, the matriarch and treasurer of the family gang. Polly managed the Peaky Blinders herself when all the boys were off fighting in the Great War, is now Tommy’s trusted right hand. But over the course of the series’ five seasons to date Polly has had many stories of her own, which involved everything from finding her long-lost son to romancing various inappropriate men and keeping the family together through the darkest of times. In short: Polly is awesome, and also represents the sort of commanding older female role that you don’t often see in shows such as this.

 

Fearless. In this six-part series from 2017, McCrory gets the complicated female leading role she’s so long deserved, playing a dedicated human rights lawyer working to prove the innocence of a man who’s been convicted for murder. Unfortunately, Fearless was canceled after just one season, because I am never allowed to have nice things. But McCrory is fabulous as the crusading Emma Banville and the supporting cast is predictably strong, including such faves as Jamie Bamber and Michael Gambon.

Its complicated conspiracy plot already feels a little dated just two years after its release – or maybe tired is a better word, since its feels like every other drama out there is doing something similar nowadays. But the cast is solid enough that it’s worth your time.

 

MotherFatherSon. It’s still not clear why this 2019 series feels the need to smush its title together in this fashion, but that’s far from the strangest thing about MotherFatherSon, so whatever. This eight-part drama has a distinctly Succession-ish vibe – yes, I know it was made and released before that show existed, but the themes are deeply similar – about the powerful owner of a British media empire, who has a damaged son, a lost but painfully posh ex-wife and a deep love for making horrible, mansplain-y speeches about, well, pretty much everything.

Richard Gere – making a rare television appearance – stars as Max Finch, a slightly less repulsive version of Rupert Murdoch, alongside McCrory as his ex-wife Kathryn and Billy Howle as his hot mess of a son. As any of you who’ve ever seen Peaky Blinders knows, McCrory excels in this sort of grand, over the top role, and watching her face off with Gere is like a competition in who can chew scenery the fastest. This story is a hodgepodge of twists, politics and family drama, as Kathryn and Max are drawn back together as Caden spirals further. It’s a bit weird, to be sure – the ending doesn’t entirely stick the landing – but kind of impossible to look away from.

 

His Dark Materials. It almost feels like a bit of a cheat to include new fantasy saga His Dark Materials in this list, given that McCrory herself doesn’t actually physically appear in the series. (Which, you know, is a shame, given how much other British talent is involved her.) But, she’s still part of the action.

In the world of this series, humans walk around with animal companions known as daemons. These are, essentially, a person’s soul given physical form. The human/daemon connection is sacred and complicated, and since these animals are basically small humans in a furry or feathered form, it makes sense they can talk, too. McCrory voices Stelmaria, a snow leopard who is the daemon companion of James McAvoy’s powerful and mysterious Lord Asriel. The cat is strong and intelligent, with a commanding personality, which, you know, isn’t that far afield from the sort of women McCrory tends to play, even if this one runs around on four paws instead of two legs.

Do you have a favorite McCrory role? Would you, too, fight people in the street for disparaging Polly Gray? Let’s discuss in the comments.