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Why award-winning Kristin Scott Thomas turns prickly when she is described as an English rose

The actress has a huge range of notable performances yet her work is not fully appreciated, argues Geoffrey Macnab


Kristin Scott Thomas

Kristin Scott Thomas

Kristin Scott Thomas with Lily James in Rebecca

Kristin Scott Thomas with Lily James in Rebecca

Kristin Scott Thomas

You don't expect Kristin Scott Thomas to be playing a housekeeper. She is a dame, after all. When it comes to class and the great divide between upstairs and downstairs, she is generally in the drawing room with the lords and ladies, not in the kitchen with the cooks and scullery maids. Nonetheless, she is back on screen below stairs as the sadistic and malevolent domestic Mrs Danvers in Ben Wheatley's new version of Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel Rebecca.

Scan through the star's credits and you'll find plenty of high society, English rose types. Scott Thomas, who went to school at Cheltenham Ladies' College, was Lady Brenda Last in Evelyn Waugh adaptation, A Handful of Dust (1988); Lady Sylvia in Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001), and Lady Anne of Lancaster in Richard Loncraine's version of Richard III (1995). She has been cast as countesses too. Even when she portrays trash-talking gangster matriarchs, as for example in Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives (2013), she is still generally the one giving the orders.

Dropping down the social ladder, Scott Thomas makes a chilling but glamorous and feline Mrs Danvers. She is very different from Judith Anderson's housekeeper in Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 version of the novel but has the same sexual ambiguity. Her obsession with her late mistress Rebecca goes way beyond that of an employee with her former boss.

"What drew me to it was the mystery," said Scott Thomas recently about why she was so determined to play Mrs Danvers. "We're never really told anything about her background. The only thing we know about her is that she's a 'Mrs' and that she looked after Rebecca. What drives a woman to burn a house down? What drives her to this insane obsession and shrine-building? What drives her to these destructive impulses?"

Her Mrs Danvers is supercilious and buttoned up but Scott Thomas conveys the dark passions that Danvers feels, as well as her resentment at the way society has left her behind. For many women in the period in which Rebecca is set, the choice was stark; either they married or they worked in service.

Next to Lily James's blonde-haired ingenue, Danvers is like the Evil Queen preying on Snow White. The richness of the performance lies in the seething inner life that Scott Thomas hints at behind the character's extreme reserve.

When Wheatley shows Mrs Danvers for the first time, she is dressed in a severe but stylish dark suit and bathed in shadow. After the young woman (James) arrives at Manderley, the huge country house belonging to her new husband Maxim (Armie Hammer), their initial encounter is just as fraught as you would expect. "Welcome to Manderley," says Danvers who greets her with the least friendly smile imaginable. The young woman goes to shake the housekeeper's hand and drops her glove. Both stoop to pick it up but Danvers gets there first. The housekeeper hands the glove back in a slow and provocative way, deliberately touching the young woman's hand in a gesture both antagonistic and seductive.

Scott Thomas plays Danvers with such intense and veiled hostility that she can make even a line like "tea is ready" sound like a threat. However, her attraction towards the young woman is evident too. We see her lovingly brush the woman's hair and then tug violently at it. Danvers is even sometimes a figure of pity, albeit a very manipulative one. "Rebecca was my life," she says at one stage of her former mistress, sounding like a grieving lover. It would be exaggerating to say that Scott Thomas is neglected. She has won plenty of awards both in the UK and in France, where she has a parallel career. Nonetheless, the full extent of her achievements is still arguably underappreciated. Scott Thomas has worked in every genre imaginable. She has appeared in British period drama, romcoms, Hollywood tearjerkers and action movies, French art house films, and even Samuel Beckett adaptations. She has played both the most worldly and the most naive of characters. Apart from Isabelle Huppert, few other actors of her generation can match her versatility or her work ethic. Her gallery of leading men over the last 30 years, Tom Cruise, Ryan Gosling, Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Grant, and Gary Oldman among them, suggests that A-list stars still yearn to act alongside her.

Bizarrely, Prince was the first to spot Scott Thomas. "You have an amazing talent," he told her when he cast her in Under the Cherry Moon (1986), which he also directed. At the time, she had been doing stage work in France having "scarpered" to Paris, as she told The Independent, to escape the stifling British class system.

Prince plays a gigolo, up to amorous mischief and larceny on the French Riviera. She is the rich young Eurotrash type with a $50m trust-fund fortune. He wants her money but he can't help falling in love with her.

"A beautiful, essentially sweet, international heiress, who's the product of that heedless upper class that tramples on members of the proletariat, like Christopher Tracy (Prince)," is how the New York Times characterised Scott Thomas's character, Mary Sharon.

Under the Cherry Moon is sleekly shot in black and white. Prince hogs most of the best close-ups but Scott Thomas gets her share of screen time. She dresses like a cross between Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina and silent movie vamp, Theda Bara. The film received extremely hostile reviews. She was nominated for two Golden Raspberries, for Worst Supporting Actress and Worst New Star of the year, but didn't even win those. It wasn't an auspicious beginning.

Nonetheless, two years later, when Scott Thomas appeared in Charles Sturridge's A Handful of Dust, critics were instantly smitten, partly because she seemed so quintessentially English. Not that her character Lady Brenda Last is sympathetic. She's a bored young aristocrat who finds life in the country with her husband (James Wilby) stultifying. She begins an affair with John Beaver (Rupert Graves), a young chancer whose attempt to gatecrash high society is being guided by his avaricious, social-climbing mother (Judi Dench). Brenda is away enjoying herself in London when her son is killed out riding in a freak accident. In the aftermath of the boy's death, she leaves her husband. It's a downbeat and sad film. Scott Thomas brings glamour and pathos to her role as the woman whose comfortable, privileged life completely unravels, largely because of her own actions.

For all her brilliance in A Handful of Dust, Scott Thomas still wasn't getting leading parts in major English language films. It would be four years until she appeared alongside Hugh Grant in Roman Polanski's luridly overwrought melodrama, Bitter Moon (1992). Grant plays Nigel, an archetypal nice but dim upper middle-class Englishman. She is his wife, Fiona. Onboard an ocean liner, they come under the bad influence of a decadent, lecherously voyeuristic wheelchair-bound American writer (Peter Coyote) and his headstrong young wife (Emmanuelle Seigner). By the end of the voyage, when she begins to make out with Seigner on the dance floor, it becomes apparent that Scott Thomas's character is neither as demure or innocent as she appears.

Scott Thomas and Grant were reunited two years later in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Grant, reprising his dithering Englishman routine, became a star on the back of it. Scott Thomas played the friend who secretly loves him. It was a supporting part in an ensemble piece but she came close to stealing the film, Grant's high jinks notwithstanding.

Anthony Minghella, who directed Scott Thomas in her Oscar-nominated role as adulterous wife Katharine Clifton opposite Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient (1996), made a revealing observation to The Irish Times about why he cast her. "Kristin's screen presence has true stillness and she has elegance and poise which underpin Katharine's unvarnished candour, and which seem to belong to another age."

Minghella's remark hints both at what makes Scott Thomas such a compelling actor and why she has never been embraced by the British public with the same affection as other dames of stage and screen like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Stillness, elegance, and poise are the hallmarks of many of the great Hollywood female stars from Marlene Dietrich to Greta Garbo. Such traits suggest mystery and glamour. They are also, though, associated with aloofness.

Scott Thomas has done her share of comedies on the big and small screen (Absolutely Fabulous and Fleabag among them). She's taken very dark roles in which she has had to get her hands "dirty". Think, for example, of Philippe Claudel's I've Loved you so Long (2008) in which she played a mother who murdered her child. As for getting dirty literally, that happened in Minghella's 2001 film version of Samuel Beckett's Play in which she is shown from the head up, crusted in mud in an urn. Appearing alongside Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman (also in urns), she rattles off Beckett's lines about betrayal and infidelity at a breakneck pace.

After The English Patient turned her into a global star, Scott Thomas was always quick to point out that she was, by then, living in France. If she was an English rose, she was a prickly one. "I still haven't understood what this English rose thing means. I haven't lived in England for 16 years. I don't know anything about England really, except from what I read in books and screenplays," she claimed in an interview during the 1997 Berlin Film Festival.

Scott Thomas has retained that reputation for coldness. Grant's much-repeated remark that she "needed warming up" each morning on the set of Four Weddings and a Funeral didn't help. You can understand why she is so indignant about being caricatured in the British media and why she often prefers to work in France where her perceived froideur is never an issue.

"There wasn't a single story about me in the British press that didn't scream: Ice Queen!" Scott Thomas complained in an interview with Numero fashion magazine. "It's simply because I'm shy." However, when it comes to Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, that iciness for once is absolutely to her advantage. It's a brilliant performance and one you wouldn't want a degree warmer.

Rebecca is in cinemas and on Netflix

Belfast Telegraph