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What do you make of a free-thinking young Londoner who loses her famous father at age five, demands to enter Freudian psychoanalysis at nine and wins the W.H. Smith Young Writers Award (twice) while still in high school? A poet? A professor? A mess? Oh, right—an actress. One that British journalist Victoria Coren calls “whip-clever and very charming.”
That Kate Beckinsale possessed screen-worthy beauty was obvious; but her fate was more likely determined by circumstance and her active imagination. Her father Richard was a much-beloved actor in the U.K., and her mother was also an actress who eventually re-married to a TV director. In considering career options, Beckinsale didn’t have to look around much to decide that her parents seemed to be having a lot more fun in their jobs than most other kids’ parents, and booking several British TV roles before she was out of her teens provided no evidence to the contrary.
While studying French and Russian at Oxford, Beckinsale did four films, most notably Kenneth Branagh’s big-screen adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. The extra-curricular activities finally proved too much ado for her schedule, and she dropped out to pursue acting full time. The pleading letter she wrote to fight for her first post-Oxford role as orphaned socialite Flora Poste in the well-received Cold Comfort Farm proved worth any effort (and potential restraining orders) involved. The Los Angeles Times wrote, “Beckinsale is yet another of those effortlessly skilled British beauties who light up the screen. Her Flora has such charm and poise and such utter fearlessness that no do-gooder could be more disarming.”
While reviews aren’t the paint box you want to use for a full picture of any actor’s talents, more than a few highlight Beckinsale’s early and singular ability to connect contemporary audiences to period-piece heroines. The Independent described her performance in ITV’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma as “the most enduring modern performance” of the role. From The New York Times on The Golden Bowl: “As Ms. Beckinsale’s Maggie metamorphoses from a victim into a steely survivor who takes control of her circumstances and makes the necessary sacrifices, each beat registers precisely.” Variety recently underlined the point its write-up on 2016’s Love & Friendship. “Lady Susan is an altogether more slippery creation, and Beckinsale, coolly imbibing one of the most satisfying screen roles of her career, lends the character an edge of ironic self-appreciation. When she deadpans a line like ‘Facts are horrid things’…it’s hard not to sense the character giving the audience the subtlest of winks from beneath her broad-brimmed hats and expensive furs.”
Sprinkled among the hats and furs were wider-ranging roles in films like The Last Days of Disco, Brokedown Palace, Pearl Harbor, Serendipity and Scorsese’s The Aviator. To ensure she wasn’t corset-holed, she also took on action films, an effort she admits may have been an overreaction. In taking on Total Recall and the Underworld series, she says, “I was so anxious to not pigeonhole myself that I ended up pigeonholing myself in the place that was furthest outside my comfort zone.” If Underworld makes more use of latex and explosions than layers and expression, well, there are worse ways to earn a global box office return of $458.2 million than being a gorgeous ass-kicking vampire.
If there’s any common thread woven through her cinematic CV, it’s the edge and subtle humor she brings to even her most serious roles. She has the emotional intelligence of someone who can at once deeply feel the grab bag of experience life hands us, and ponder it from a philosophical remove. If she’s found some of that intelligence to be hard-won, she nevertheless brings it to bear in portraying the kind of layered, complex characters we see around us every day, but all too infrequently on screen. Carry on, Ms. Beckinsale, carry on.