Every year, the Richard Harris award at the BIFAs is one of the most special moments of the night, recognising the work of a distinguished and talented actor or actress.
By James Mottram
In 2019, it’s the turn of the peerless Kristin Scott Thomas, a three-time BIFA nominee who has been working on stage and screen in England, Europe and America for the past thirty-five years. Hers is a career of great dexterity, showing impeccable taste in filmmakers, whether it’s convincing us as the foul-mouthed criminal matriarch in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, as her BIFA-nominated aunt to John Lennon in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Nowhere Boy or Winston Churchill’s better half in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour.
Born in Cornwall, the daughter of a pilot for the Royal Navy, Scott Thomas’ boldness was cemented early on after a troubled year at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. Told she couldn’t act, she took off to Paris when she was 18 to become an au pair but would soon find her way into theatre school. Not long afterwards, she met her husband-to-be François Olivennes, with whom she had three children.
Her adopted home, France would offer her some of the most memorable roles over the years. Films like Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You For So Long, in which she played a woman struggling to reintegrate into society after fifteen years in jail, or Catherine Corsini’s Leaving, a tale of a bourgeois housewife uprooting her existence for a passionate affair.
While her film debut, acting opposite His Purpleness – Prince – in vanity project Under the Cherry Moon, remains an amusing curio on her CV, her real breakthrough came in 1988, in the adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, in which she invested the cold-hearted Lady Brenda with a chilling emptiness.
It was the first of several aristocrats she would play (ideal casting for one awarded an OBE and a Dame-hood). But perhaps due to her experiences in France, where she was often allowed to plunge greater emotional depths, Scott Thomas always resisted the lure of too many period pieces, all “big hats and wigs” as she wryly put it.
In the Nineties, she stole our hearts as Fiona, who yearns for Hugh Grant’s character in Brit-hit Four Weddings and a Funeral, then broke them in The English Patient. Adapted from the Michael Ondaatje novel, Anthony Minghella’s aching 1996 romance was a high point, winning her nominations at the Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTAs for Best Actress.
“The English Patient was a tough one,” she’d later say. “It was a very important film for me acting wise. The experience of going to the desert and working with these people – it was a big event in my life.” There was no question, Scott Thomas possessed the poise and gravitas needed for the old-fashioned David Lean-style epic.
That same year, she featured opposite Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible, “in which her unflappable face was perfectly suited to ignoring the elephantine and nonsensical plot”, wrote critic David Thomson. And there were further adventures, alongside Harrison Ford (Random Hearts) and Robert Redford (The Horse Whisperer).
More recently Scott Thomas has renewed her love for British independent film – with BIFA nominations for her roles in the crisp Noël Coward adaptation Easy Virtue and Charles Dickens tale The Invisible Woman, directed by her English Patient co-star Ralph Fiennes. Her work for Sally Potter as a high-flying MP in The Party was also particularly delicious.
“Like most great screen actors, it’s all about the way she hides the emotions – you just see it behind the veneer,” says Peter Cattaneo, who recently directed her in the upcoming Military Wives, in which she helps start up a choir with the other army spouses left behind at base. It’s a typically deft turn by Scott Thomas, hitting both the comic and emotional notes with perfect pitch.
While she will celebrate her 60th birthday in 2020, she will also be seen in Rebecca, Ben Wheatley’s take on Daphne Du Maurier’s beloved novel, in which she plays Mrs. Danvers. Working with one of the most exciting and vibrant British filmmakers around? It’s just the sort of move Richard Harris would raise a glass to.