As Netflix’s regal saga returns with Helena playing Princess Margaret, we take a look at her unconventional love life, the secret family heartache and the uncle who once dated the rebellious royal
Words Michelle Davies
Helena Bonham Carter’s preparation for The Crown was as unconventional as we’ve come to expect from her. This is the woman who, after all, famously lived in adjoining houses to Tim Burton, her ex-partner of 13 years, because he snored too much and while other A-listers signed up for collaborations with high-end designers, she launched a line of Victoriana clothing called The Pantaloonies that included mop caps and bloomers.
So when Helena revealed she only agreed to play Princess Margaret after seeking permission from the dead Royal herself via a psychic, it seemed perfectly apt. ‘My main thing when you play someone who is real, you kind of want their blessing, because you have a responsibility,’ Bonham Carter explained. ‘So I asked her [via the psychic]: “Are you OK with me playing you?” and she said: “You’re better than the other actress”.’ Who that other actress was, Princess Margaret didn’t say.
Yet despite her reputation for eccentricity, Bonham Carter is mainstream when it comes to success. With two Oscar nominations and Bafta and SAG Awards to her name, she is currently the sixth-highest grossing actress in Hollywood, according to industry fact checkers boxofficemojo.com. Her films have grossed an incredible £6.8billion worldwide, largely thanks to her roles as Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter franchise and the Red Queen in 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and its 2016 sequel, Alice Through The Looking Glass. The only British actress to rank higher than her is Emma Watson.
It was in 1979, aged 13, that Bonham Carter decided she wanted to act. Her banker father, Raymond, had been left paralysed and partially blind after an operation to remove a benign brain tumour, shattering her ‘very happy childhood’ and making her feel she had to learn to fend for herself. Her only experience was performing in school plays, but from their home in north London she rang round acting agents until she found one happy to take her on. ‘I was determined to have self-sufficiency,’ she said. ‘It was just thinking, “I can make a happy ending out of this”.’
Forty years on from making that call, her role in The Crown is her 80th to date. Bonham Carter certainly has the pedigree to play Princess Margaret – she is the great-granddaughter of HH Asquith, the last Liberal politician to serve as Prime Minister, and her uncle, Lord Mark Bonham Carter, a former MP, happened to date Princess Margaret before she met Group Captain Peter Townsend. ‘They went on to become good, long-time friends. She would be at his parties, and you were very aware that a princess was there. I remember going, “I mustn’t turn my back on her, I mustn’t turn my back on her”,’ the actress revealed this week.
Bonham Carter got her breakthrough at 17, starring in a children’s TV drama called A Pattern of Roses. Afterwards she was finishing her A-levels and preparing to go to Cambridge when director Trevor Nunn came across her picture in Tatler and cast her as the lead in Lady Grey, his 1986 biopic of the young Royal who was Queen for only nine days. Then, before filming had even completed, she was offered the part of Lucy Honeychurch in Merchant Ivory’s A Room With A View. The film, based on the novel by EM Forster, went on to win the Oscar for Best Screenplay, but its success signalled the end of Bonham Carter’s academic ambitions – Cambridge withdrew its offer of a place because they feared acting would get in the way of her completing her degree.
In 1990, aged 23, she starred as Ophelia in Mel Gibson’s Hamlet. More period pieces followed, including Where Angels Fear To Tread and Howard’s End, leading her to lament she was being typecast. Even a cameo in Absolutely Fabulous did nothing to dispel her reputation as ‘Queen of the corsets’. ‘Period movies are my destiny,’ she said at the time. ‘I should probably get a few ribs taken out because I’ll be in corsets for the rest of my life.’
An affair with Branagh
In 1994, the then 28-year-old was cast in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a big budget horror drama directed by and co-starring Kenneth Branagh, who at 34 was the toast of British acting alongside his wife, Emma Thompson. By the time the film premiered in LA in 1994, Bonham Carter and Branagh were in the throes of an affair that came to light when he and Thompson announced their divorce the following September. He and Bonham Carter were together for five years in all. Years later, when she was accused of luring Burton away from his fiancée, she admitted it was hard being branded a ‘habitual, serial home breaker’. ‘It gets frustrating because I know the story and the truth of it. It is very hurtful,’ she said.
In 1997 she earned her first Best Actress Oscar nomination for The Wings Of A Dove. Although another costume drama, it did land her the part that broke her out of the corset mould – playing dysfunctional Marla Singer in David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club. Then in 2001 she entered the big budget blockbuster realm with Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake. Her first meeting with American-born Burton was memorable for him declaring, ‘I can really see you in an ape mask.’ Rather than be offended, Bonham Carter was instantly taken with him.
A younger lover
With their eclectic dress sense and matching wild hair, they seemed made for each other. And rather than live conventionally as a couple, they resided in adjoining houses connected by a doorway – or, if you believed one tabloid account, a secret underground passageway illuminated only by candles and occupied by bats and owls. ‘We see as much of each other as any couple, but our relationship is enhanced by knowing we have our personal space to retreat to,’ she explained.
Their son, Billy, was born in 2003 and a daughter, Nell, followed in 2007. Neither she nor Burton felt the need to marry and their relationship translated into a successful on-screen collaboration as well; together they made nine films, including Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
But in December 2014 they announced their separation, a year after a newspaper published pictures of Burton kissing another woman outside a London cinema. Bonham Carter, who was 48 at the time, later reflected she felt ‘lost’ in the aftermath, but refused to condemn the relationship as a failure. ‘The mark of a successful relationship shouldn’t be whether you’re there forever after,’ she said. ‘Sometimes you’re not meant to be forever together. We gave each other children and a lot more else.’ Now she’s ‘very happy’ with Danish writer, Rye Dag Holmboe, who is 21 years her junior. They are said to have met at a mutual friend’s wedding last summer and Bonham Carter has described the relationship as ‘a bit of unexpected magic in my life’.
That magic appears to have spread to her career. No longer Burton’s muse – Eva Green now occupies that position – Bonham Carter is free to explore projects she might otherwise have overlooked or been too busy to accept. Her next project after The Crown is Eona Holmes, a film about the teenage sister of Sherlock Holmes, with Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown in the titular role. It’s due for release next year. ‘When I turned 50, I was worried it was downhill all the way,’ Bonham Carter recently confided. ‘But it’s quite the opposite. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier or more fulfilled.’