Helen McCrory: An extraordinarily eloquent actor who understood the power of silence like few others

Claire Allfree
·3 min read
<p>McCrory as Polly in Peaky Blinders</p> (BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd/Tiger Aspect/Robert Viglasky)

McCrory as Polly in Peaky Blinders

(BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd/Tiger Aspect/Robert Viglasky)

Helen McCrory had an extraordinarily eloquent face, but her most expressive features, by some distance, were her eyebrows. She had an uncanny ability to raise them just so, in ways that could suddenly chill the air. In one of her final acting appearances, she used them in the concluding episode of ITV’s Quiz, playing a QC defending the coughing Major Ingram and his wife. Her gimlet-eyed performance was so icily forensic that she briefly became a Twitter sensation.

Few actresses understood the power of silence and stillness the way McCrory did. Her career was a successful balancing act of mainstream TV roles and acclaimed stage work and she brought the same electrifying presence to both. She was quite superb at villainy, lacing her most memorable screen performances with an unmatchable, steely froideur – whether as the matriarch Aunt Polly in the long-running Peaky Blinders – the role that cemented her in the hearts of most – or the dastardly Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise. There was something dangerously withheld about these roles, a contained malevolence.

Yet McCrory was a dazzling force of nature in her career and in real life. In interviews she came across as, quite simply, tremendous fun – the sort of woman you would yearn to spend a thoroughly indiscreet gossipy evening with, downing whisky chasers. She had extraordinary style. She was mischievous, funny and generous. And she was no fool, acidly dismissing the tiresome “strong women” label slapped on to female characters before the phrase even became a thing. Yet strength was the quality she revealed in every role she played. Her women were complex, complicated, contrary and clever; as a wittily acerbic Cherie Blair in The Queen, a slyly sexy MP in Skyfall, or a formidable prime minister in David Hare’s Roadkill.

Matthew Peyton/Getty Images
Matthew Peyton/Getty Images

She was at her most exceptional on stage, however. Her last theatre performance was in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre in 2016. She played the upper-class Hester Collyer, who has left her husband for a younger, feckless alcoholic pilot and begins the play suicidal in a bedsit. Her performance captured not just the abject longing of a woman in the grip of a hopeless passion but an agonising awareness of its self-sabotaging absurdity. She had been a terrifyingly determined, wrenching Medea at the same theatre two years previously, cutting straight to the psychological bone of the character with harrowing focus and with the mercurial, self knowing intelligence that always made her such a joy to watch. She was a sensual Yelena in Uncle Vanya and a mesmeric Anna in Pinter’s Old Times. She played Lady Macbeth early in her career: how I would have loved to have seen it. She understood how often the smallest gestures can communicate the most devastating emotions but even at her stillest on stage she was always the most vital of actors, every atom of her soul thrumming with life. It was always a shock to realise in life just how physically tiny she was.

Her voice – rich as pudding, as sharp as a splinter – made her natural casting for affluent, jaded women (as in Simon Gray’s The Late Middle Classes), but however polished and taut the skin, McCrory had the knack of exposing the nerve endings jangling beneath. She never quite made it on the big screen and I wonder why: perhaps she thought Hollywood wasn’t for her, perhaps she preferred to work in the UK.She was an un-flashy actor, despite the occasional photograph of her and Damian dressed to the nines, always laughing, and one of our very best. Her death leaves us mourning not just her very many achievements but the roles she might have played: I’d have loved to have seen her Cleopatra. Just 52. What a dreadful loss.

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