In Memoriam: Helen McCrory’s Top 4 Roles

By Joan Amenn

The loss of Helen McCrory so tragically young is a punch to the gut for all who admired her work as an actor of rare talent. The following is a very subjective listing of favorites from her film roles, although it should be noted that she was just as astonishing on the stage as the screen.

Peaky Blinders (2014-): Aunt Polly Gray is an iconic portrayal of a woman made of steel. The series is set at the turn of the twentieth century but Polly would be perfectly comfortable living in the twenty first. No one could enter or leave a scene like McCrory and how she was dressed by the costume designers of the show was stunning. From her furs and jewels to her men’s wear styled suits, she drew all eyes on the screen to her. As a key member of the Shelby clan, she could stare down her own nephew, Tommy (Cillian Murphy) as well as Italian mobster Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody). But perhaps Polly’s greatest scene is her final confrontation with Inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill). Their electricity together leaves a viewer breathless.

Penny Dreadful (2014-2016): Season 2 saw McCrory playing Evelyn Poole/Madame Kali, a medium and all around seductively evil agent of the “Master.” No spoilers here if you haven’t yet seen the series and if you are a fan of gothic horror, what are you waiting for? McCrory and Eva Green as Vanessa Ives are pitted against each other in a battle of supernatural power. There is also a subplot about how men perceived as socially powerful can be easily manipulated and controlled. It’s all deliciously dark and risqué but the best scene is McCrory singing the ballad, “The Unquiet Grave” in a way that will make your hair on the back of your neck legitimately stand up.

The Harry Potter Series: the Half-Blood Prince, the Deathly Hallows Parts 1&2 (2010-2011): McCrory entered this series of films late in the game but certainly made a huge impact in her portrayal of Narcissa Malfoy. Bred to be a member of the wizarding world that embraced the dark magic of Voldemort, she nonetheless invoked true sympathy from the audience in her devotion to her son, Draco (Tom Felton). She is much more nuanced in personality than her sister, Bellatrix (Helen Bonham Carter) who is somewhat unstable and domineering. Although without doubt fighting on the wrong side, her love of her family is poignant and McCrory masterfully brings out her maternal nature even as we root for her to be defeated with the rest of those who oppose “The Boy Who Lived.”

The Queen (2006):  As Cherie Blair, McCrory played opposite Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Tony Blair in this depiction of what went on behind closed doors among the Royals after the tragic death of Princess Diana. Her sassy, irreverent take on the institution of hereditary rule in the United Kingdom may not be something everyone agrees with, but she is a welcome bit of levity amid the thorny and sometimes, downright icy attitudes of some of the residents of Buckingham Palace as they are portrayed in the film.

Of course, there are other, smaller roles that McCrory played that are also memorable. For example, she was the voice of Stelmaria, the daemon of Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) in the series, “His Dark Materials.” Whatever she lent her talents to was enriched for having her in it which makes her loss all the more painful. Helen McCrory was a great actor not soon forgotten.  

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