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Stevenson, Juliet (1956-)


Main image of Stevenson, Juliet (1956-)

Juliet Stevenson was 34, and had been acting in film and television for a full decade, before she made her screen breakthrough in the fantasy rom-com Truly Madly Deeply (1990), Anthony Minghella's cinematic debut. Stevenson played a bereaved woman whose lover (Alan Rickman) returns from the dead to comfort her. The rare physicality of her acting was apparent from the very first scene, in which she pours out her grief to a therapist: a gulping, snorting, sobbing crying jag devoid of the least concern for superficial dignity or elegance. She commented later, "I don't really like watching that glamorised version of grief - a single tear rolls down a perfect cheek. My experience of loss is that you feel trashed. Loss is not a glamorous thing." David Thomson found in her performance "a furious need, a passion, an unstoppable creative energy" that reminded him of the young Vanessa Redgrave.

Stevenson was born in Essex. Her father was an army officer and, according to his daughter, "was posted to a new place every two and a half years. I have no geographical roots." She was educated at private boarding schools in England, and it was while at school that the acting bug first bit her. She recalls "the moment I first heard Shakespeare spoken out loud, by a group of actors at school. Theirs was a five-person rendition of King Lear. I walked out an hour later, transformed by the language and scale of thinking and feeling." After school she studied at RADA, where she had a formative experience. A director harshly criticised her performance as Cleopatra. "Suddenly I filled with rage that anybody would humiliate me like that. The only way of expressing that rage was through the language. I could feel this power coming up from somewhere I didn't know existed and coming out through everything, fingertips and brain and mouth and suddenly it was working and I remember thinking, 'Great, this is it, it's like flying!' And at the end he said, 'Thank you very much, that's more like it.'"

In 1978 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, ascending from minor roles to leads: Hippolyta/Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1981), Isabella in Measure for Measure (1984), Cressida in Troilus and Cressida and Rosalind in As You Like It (both 1985), Madame de Tourvel in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1986). Other stage successes included the title role in Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre (1989) and Paulina in Death and the Maiden (1991) at the Royal Court, which won her an Olivier Award for Best Actress.

On screen, her career took longer to catch fire. She made her TV debut in Granada's adaptation of Catherine Cookson's sub-Brönte-ish period melodrama The Mallens (ITV, 1979-80), and went on to demonstrate the warmth, immediacy and versatility of her acting in a wide range of productions. She was a passionate, unyielding Antigone in two of Don Taylor's Sophoclean adaptions, 'Oedipus at Colonus' and 'Antigone' (in The Theban Plays by Sophocles, BBC, 1984), and wholly convincing as a dedicated scientist in 'Life Story' (Horizon, BBC, 1987), where she played Rosalind Franklin, the 'forgotten woman' in the discovery of DNA.

Stevenson's cinematic debut came as one of the trio of homicidal women in Peter Greenaway's Drowning by Numbers (1988). Typically ludic and enigmatic, it didn't offer her much scope for emotional intensity - unlike her role in Truly Madly Deeply, which Minghella had written specifically for her. (She was BAFTA nominated for her performance.) Her capacity for emotional intelligence was equally well served by David Hare in The Secret Rapture (1993), adapted from his own play, where she played a woman whose attempt to show kindness to her young widowed stepmother backfires disastrously on her. Rejecting the lure of Hollywood ("They're interested in youth and perfection and I lay no claims to either. It's not a place that's particularly interested in talent") she made the most of what the British cinema could offer, and created a richly grotesque Mrs Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby (d. Douglas McGrath, US/UK, 2002).

On TV, she took the title role in Paula Milne's The Politician's Wife (Channel 4, 1995), moving from downtrodden to vengeful in the face of her husband's perfidy. She was even more driven in 'Helen's Story', the third episode in Jimmy McGovern's Accused series (BBC, 2010), as a woman whose son is killed in an industrial accident, while Abi Morgan's 1950s-set drama series The Hour (BBC, 2011) cast her against type as an uptight aristocrat.

Unconventionally beautiful - her looks have been described as 'leonine' - Stevenson is capable, given a promising role, of throwing herself into it with total commitment. "It feels as if there isn't a single part of me that isn't used up doing what I do. I mean, head, heart, soul, fingers, sexuality, everything is employed." All too often, though, her warmth and openness have been sidetracked into wife or mother roles - Manjar de amor (Food of Love, Spain/Germany, 2002), Bend It Like Beckham (d. Gurinder Chadha, 2002), Pierrepoint (d. Adrian Shergold, 2005) - that use only a fraction of her talent.

Philip Kemp

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