“You have to don the bonnet at some point, otherwise you’re simply not a British actress.” That’s what Emily Blunt told MTV News in 2009, when she played the queen in the theatrical film The Young Victoria.
Blunt may have a point. The list of British actresses who’ve taken on roles requiring period dress—and, of course, bonnets—is long and impressive. The Telegraph made a list that included Carey Mulligan, Rosamund Pike, Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson as actresses who gained notice and went on to great success playing Regency or Victorian heroines.
The parts these actresses play are often the same, and sometimes so is the bonnet: The Costumer’s Guide has several pages devoted to photos of recycled Regency dresses and bonnets. For example, the floppy mesh bonnet Blunt wore in a garden scene in Young Victoria is the same one Rosamund Pike wore when she learned Mr. Bingley has returned to Netherfield in the 2005 film version of Pride & Prejudice. Catherine Walker wore the bonnet yet again in 2007’s Northanger Abbey. A hopeful extra even wore it in a church scene in Becoming Jane.
Jenna Coleman is the most recent British actress hoping that donning the bonnet will be her springboard to a career as an A-list leading lady. She’s currently playing the teenage queen in the PBS series Victoria. She left her co-starring role as the feisty companion of Doctor Who to play one of England’s most iconic monarchs.
Like many of the other actresses, Coleman says she was excited by the challenge of going back in time to play the teenage Queen Victoria. To prepare for the role, she was given access to the Queen’s private diaries. She also learned to ride sidesaddle, waltz and play Beethoven on the piano. “Nailing the accent in particular was a lot of work,” she told Parade. “Her voice changes as she grows up and inhabits her own role in terms of public speaking.” That kind of preparation is not unusual. Knightley said that to prepare for Pride & Prejudice, historians came and lectured the cast and there were etiquette lessons to teach the appropriate way to dine and dance in Regency England. “You have to learn the rules to be able to know how to break them,” she said.
Then there are the clothes. In addition to bonnets, there are corsets, petticoats, empire waists, frilly, floor-length ball gowns, complicated hairdos and uncomfortable shoes. Learning to move naturally in a hoop skirt, cinched waist and elaborate hairdo while dancing, horseback riding or even sitting down for a cup of tea adds an additional layer of complexity.
Coleman must be hoping all the research and hard work will benefit her as similar roles have other British actresses. For instance, the bonnet helped establish Winslet as an A-list actress. She’s best known as the ill-fated Rose in Titanic , and before that as Marianne Dashwood in Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. In 1995, Winslet told The New York Times that the chance to co-star with British film and theatre stars like Thompson, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant and Hugh Laurie was a dream come true. Winslet moved on to many other roles and eventually an Oscar based on her ability to bring characters to life in Regency hair and make-up.
It was also a leading role in the Merchant/Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End that won Emma Thompson her first Academy Award. (Thompson began her career as a solid comedic actress in Peter’s Friends, and The Tall Guy.) When she won her screenplay Oscar for Sense & Sensibility, Thompson’s memorable Oscar acceptance speech suggested she knew Forster and Austen could make careers and big box office. In that now-famous speech, she began by saying she went to visit Jane Austen’s grave in England, “to pay my respects, you know, and to tell her about the grosses. And I don’t know how she would react to an evening like this but I do hope, I do hope she knows how big she is in Uruguay.”
Although most critics had no patience with Julian Fellowes’ dusty, buttoned-down script for The Young Victoria , Blunt won kudos as the commanding and convincing Queen. The film was the perfect showcase for her unique ability to the combine haughty cool and vulnerable girlishness she brought to films like The Devil Wears Prada with great success.
Of course, there are times when wearing the bonnet too well can be a bigger problem than never wearing one at all. While many actresses use the period drama to prove their acting chops and expand their choice of roles, Helena Bonham Carter instead found herself typecast as a period heroine. Her first major role, in 1985’s A Room with a View, saw her star alongside Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Daniel Day-Lewis. Bonham-Carter said her unconventional looks and her quirky acting style are part of what has led her to roles in other drawing room dramas, including Great Expectations, The Wings of the Dove, and The King’s Speech. However, unlike Winslet and Thompson, Bonham-Carter was never able to capture a significant number of contemporary parts. ”I’m a genre unto myself [in England]. If a period film opens and I’m not in it, the critics write, ‘And the Helena Bonham Carter role is played by…’ she said just prior to the release of Howard’s End in 1992. “Period movies are my destiny. I should get a few ribs taken out because I’ll be in a corset for the rest of my life.”
Coleman looks wonderful in bonnets, and the puffy sleeved, boat necked dresses Victoria wears are beautiful and flattering, so visually, she’s off to a good start. In the early episodes of Victoria, Coleman plays a teenage queen, skipping down hallways, playing with her dog and planning dances while the old guard of old white men plans to remove her from the throne (which the petite queen needs a step stool to sit on). Like Blunt, her teenage queen is a combination of a contemporary “mean girl” and an overwhelmed young monarch—a clever balance of contemporary and Victorian qualities.
However, it’s early days—there are seven more episodes and an entire second season of Victoria to come. With so many episodes covering so much ground, it’s an opportunity for Coleman to prove her ability to play a demanding role, leading, one hopes, to many other opportunities. On the other hand, playing the same role for an extended period could also trap her like a Doctor Who heroine in a Victorian time-warp from which there is no escape.