Ken and Helena: It's Official

Evening Standard (London), July 18, 1997
By Michael Owen

Helena Bonham Carter parked her Diet Coke and entered a long perambulatory sentence which suggested that it could have but one logical outcome. She finally took a deep breath and closed the conversational meander with the words..."and that's when Mr Branagh arrived."

There, that wasn't so difficult after all, I suggested, and she smiled at the irony that she had been the first to bracket their names together rather than me.

The subject was actually totally innocent, as the pair are currently engaged in their most intimate piece of work together, filming a movie in the unlikely environs of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. She was merely describing how her co-star came on board.

But since a paparazzo caught the couple embracing in the Surrey countryside the media have constantly sought confirmation that the love affair was on, and the two of them have doggedly responded with inventive diversionary tactics.

I told her they had raised discretion to a new art form in their reluctance to admit to a relationship which is now some two years old, and she grinned again when I asked why such subterfuge was necessary.

"It's not as simple as that. Yes, OK, of course we are together and it's very nice, thank you very much. We have never actually sat down and decided not to say anything or tried to make some sort of policy about it. God knows, relationships are difficult enough and we are both aware of the pressures that are created in this business. We don't feel the need to talk about details of our private life. If you concede anything then journalists always want a bit more."

She had turned up, clutching her Coke can, for a hotel breakfast meeting. "I feel shagged," were her first words after a warm greeting. I took this to allude to the exhaustion of dawn-to-dusk film-making schedules. She was wearing regulation black trousers, denim jacket and three-inch heels, which brought her up to conventional eye level. But even through the presumed fatigue, the dark-pool eyes and porcelain complexion of this waif-woman recently turned 30 [sic] still potently held their allure.

It was probably the upbeat mood of our meeting that allowed her the moment of unconcealed honesty, as she is not just locked into a new film with her lover but celebrating an accelerating departure from her image as a Pre-Raphaelite princess of Merchant-Ivory films.

We last saw her as a dour Nova Scotian serial murderer in Margaret's Museum, which followed her Woody Allen film Mighty Aphrodite and her Olivia in Trevor Nunn's screen version of Twelfth Night. Next week she will be seen taking another quantum leap, this time into Truffaut-land.

She spent four months in Paris making a French-language film called Portraits Chinois, where she was the brave outsider in a thoroughly gallic cast. The result is a triumph for her and an embraceable movie that shines like a beacon through the gloom of this cinematically lackluster summer.

Set in the Paris fashion community, the film follows a loosely knit group of people who commit all of life's small deceptions and indiscretions but somehow stay together. She plays a designer's assistant full of surface gloss but whose job and relationships are quietly sliced away from under her.

"I'd always wanted to make one of those old-fashioned French movies. My mother is half French and most of the family is bilingual but they didn't know about that background when they sent the script to me. I was given an English translation."

With her A-level French long receded, she threw herself into a language class then headed for Paris. "When the director first met me, her face fell. She was expecting to see all the hair but I'd just cut it off. She's had an image of me which I'd just exploded. But we read the script together and got on fine."

She installed herself in a St Germain apartment and hung out round the cafes and bistros in her spare time. "I was on my own but I never felt isolated, not like I have done sometimes in New York. Paris is very friendly, it's OK to be alone. And it forced me to use my French.

"But I was worried about the rest of the cast, because they all knew each other. In the event, they were incredibly warm and supportive."

She came home to run up another rack of films, still awaiting to release, which will show her in a further variety of guises. She made the screen adaptation of Ayckbourn's The Revengers' Comedies with Sam Neill, Alan Plater's version of Orwell's Keep the Apidistra Flying with Richard E. Grant and Henry James's Wings of the Dove.

This relentless industry needed explanation. "I used to have this appalling inability to say no. But I'm definitely better at saying no to what's not appropriate. The opportunities do seem to be there and I think I'm getting better at choosing what might be best."

The theatre is not on her agenda at present. "I can't commit to a dinner date in a week's time let alone an eight-month run with a tour."

Her move into her own home, an artist's studio around the corner from her parental home in Golders Green where she has lived thus far, is stalled until planning consents arrive. "My family is getting used to learning the progress from newspapers rather than me," she said wryly.

Back in Merthyr Tydfil Miss Bonham Carter had to climb into a wheelchair. The film with Ken is called The Theory of Flight, a first screenplay by Richard Hawkins, who sent his script unsolicited and unannounced to the BBC. It casts the actress as a motor neurone disease sufferer befriended by a minor criminal on community service, played by Branagh.

"It's not just a wheelchair film. The character is vivid and vital," she says. "It came to me and I said yes immediately. Ken was intrigued about me banging on about the quality of it, then the dates fell into place so he could join too...and that's when Mr Branagh arrived."

They are being driven to the set in separate cars but no one on the film doubts their pleasure at being locked together for a period of weeks when their work more often drags them apart.

"There's no romance in the film, just a deepening friendship," she said. "But it's so good to be working with Ken this closely. It's more fun when you know someone that well and we have a lot of laughs, even if I do tend to laugh at all the wrong moments."

She was still smiling when I left.

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