Wow. This Rophy Trophy has been a long time in the making… or rather a long time in the hanging around half finished, if we’re honest. We started it in honour of The Hour coming soon to our screens. Then we updated it in honour of The Hour getting picked up for a second series. And now, well, it’s just time.
What follows is unabashed fawning over Romola Garai, who is possibly the very best actress of her generation, and one of the few people for whom Rophy will watch anything. Anything.
Thankfully, she rarely leads us astray – the projects she chooses to be a part of are usually both entertaining and enriching, and as such she is one of the few young actors for whom we actually struggle to narrow it down to just ten brilliant performances.
We struggled. We really, really struggled…
10. Barbara Spooner in ‘Amazing Grace’ (2006)
“It seems to me that if there is a bad taste in your mouth, you spit it out. You don’t constantly swallow it back.” – as Barbara Spooner
Sophy says: In Amazing Grace Romola played Barbara Spooner, wife and source of strength and inspiration to Lord Wilberforce, who led the movement to abolish the slave trade. Romola was perfectly suited to the role, drawing on her own intelligence, fierce will, and social conscience to bring Barbara Spooner to life. It was very much a supporting role, but it was supporting in the sense of being structural, just as Barbara was absolutely structural in her support of her husband’s work.
I learned a lot from this film. Notably that Romola Garai looks really good with red hair.
Rin says: And then we kind of learned she looks good with every hair and in every period and everything and omg just be in everything already?
Sophy says: SHE’S TRYING, OKAY? She’s not even 30 yet. Give her a break.
Rin says: THERE WILL BE NO BREAKS!
The moment we show any signs of weakness is the moment she’ll take advantage and go into early retirement.
IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT?!
Sophy says: Omg she would do that. One of these days she’ll probably quit acting to prance around with all her frivolous helping protect women against violence in Africa and stuff. And I’ll just be left here diligently rewatching my copy of Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights over and over.
(Yes, I have a copy.)
09. Cassandra Mortmain in ‘I Capture The Castle’ (2003)
“I suppose the thing that I spent the most time working on was making sure that Cassandra didn’t appear whimsical because I think people can describe the novel unfairly as being fanciful. I wanted her to be very real and very honest, which is what she really is.” – on Cassandra Mortmain
Sophy says: Look at her. She’s all mousy. Isn’t it cute?
This was Romola’s first big screen role, and it was a big ask. She had to carry the film on her flimsy little shoulders, whilst holding her own against the likes of Bill Nighy and Tara Fitzgerald, and, she had to be magnetic enough that we still wanted to look at her mousy self even when the gorgeous, tumbly-haired Rose Byrne was on the screen. Suffice to say she succeeded on all fronts.
I think the above quote really illustrates why she got Cassandra so right, when I fear many other young actresses would have gotten her so wrong. She didn’t pull a Juno on us, you know? She didn’t dive into the quirkiness going on around her, splash about in the intellectual precociousness of her character. Cassandra is a dreamer, sure, but Romola kept her very much in the real world, and imbued her with a really tender vulnerability even as she grew in self-assuredness throughout the film.
Basically she had what so many young actors lack, which is subtlety – and the confidence to be quiet.
Rin says: This is one of those movies that just ropes you in for its full runtime, and if you’re like me and haven’t read the book, you don’t know what’s going to happen next but you don’t care because you’re just enjoying every second of it. And a huge part of that is Romola’s portrayal of Cassandra. And I totally get what Sophy is saying about how she isn’t Juno, even though I like Juno and Ellen Page, Cassandra is strange and awkward, but she feels like someone who could very much exist.
Also the movie has Marc Blucas and Henry Cavill in it.
And it was written by Heidi Thomas. Which. She’s Rophy’s newest hero, so. WATCH IMMEDIATELY.
Sophy says: If I could swap myself for another Heidi just so there were two of them in the world writing movies and TV I would. For the greater good.
08. Siobhan in ‘Inside I’m Dancing’ (2004)
“It was interesting for me to play a part that could conceivably be a real person. I didn’t feel like her behaviour was uncharacteristically heightened. She’s a simple person, in a way.” – on Siobhan
Sophy says: HOLY CRAP IT’S ROMOLA IN NORMAL CLOTHES. Oh wait, she didn’t feel comfortable. She had to put on some kind of costume.
But really, this was very exciting for me, seeing as it was the first time I’d actually seen her in something that was not a period film. She has appeared in several contemporary productions since, but none of them have really been knock-0uts, which I attribute to their failure to give Romola’s character enough screen time. I spent all of Scoop squinting bitterly for Romola. One Day would probably have worked if she’d been playing Emma, rather than an Anne Hathaway who was trying way too hard to make me love her. Junkhearts needed to give Christine 50% more screentime to keep me engaged. It’s all about the Romola, you guys. Why is it that the period films get this and the modern films don’t?
(Let me make one thing clear: I may have issues with Junkhearts, but it is worth watching for Romola’s crazy good performance. Heck, it’s worth watching for this alone:
But back to Siobhan. I love that Romola thinks it’s interesting to play someone ordinary. I love that she relished the simplicity, not so much of the role, but of the human being she was bringing to the screen, and that she didn’t feel shortchanged at being the third wheel in a film that was really about Rory and Michael. She brought so much charm and warmth to the film precisely because she didn’t mind not being the primary source of charm and warmth. In short: she didn’t try too hard and that’s why it works. And her chemistry with James McAvoy was completely electric. They really need to work together again in a romantic context.
(By the way, when you watch this film you need to immediately watch the extended party scene. If it hadn’t been cut out it would probably be the best scene in the whole darned thing?)
Rin says: NORMAL ROMOLA. And by normal we mean normal. Her character isn’t flashy or particularly special, but real. Very very real. And it’s exactly that, that makes her special.
What to expect from this film: A lot of clutching at your heart.
Also she has braids. And I never felt the urge to get the shears out. That should tell you how special Romola is.
07. Briony Tallis in ‘Atonement’ (2007)
“There is no Briony” – as Briony Tallis
Sophy says: Okay, if you haven’t seen this film yet, don’t read on. (And if you haven’t read the book yet, do it before seeing the film. Trust me, it’s worth it.)
This is truly one of Romola’s most complex and spectacular performances to date, and I will never not be rage blackouty about the lack of recognition she received for it. I know it’s all her fault, because she went off on tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company instead of running around Hollywood doing interviews and posing for pictures. I know the awards are all about publicity and get it wrong so much of the time that I shouldn’t care. But I still do.
I think what really burns my biscuits is that both Saoirse Ronan and Vanessa Redgrave received nominations for their portrayals of younger and older Briony, whereas Romola got nothing for middle Briony, despite the fact that she had by far the most difficult portion of the character to contend with given the whole reality/unreality dichotomy she had to play. And despite the fact that in my view she did an incredible job with it. Yes, Ronan is wonderful as young Briony, but did anyone ever take into account that Romola modeled herself on her in order to give the film its continuity? Romola Garai as Briony Tallis is Romola Garai as Saiorse Ronan as Briony Tallis and she is completely convincing and absolutely nothing like the real Romola Garai to the point where it was downright unnerving. Her voice, her mannerisms, her movements and expressions. None of it is her. And that is some damn fine acting.
(I won’t get into Vanessa Redgrave, except to say that whilst I love her in many things, her performance in this film was not special.)
Frankly, Romola should have won all the awards for her delivery of “I am very, very sorry for the terrible distress that I have caused you” alone.
Rin says: I put off watching Atonement for AGESAGESAGES because I really wanted to read the book first, and then I did what I always do and caved because Romola. And what surprised me the most, as Sophy said, is how NOT Romola it is. And it just goes to show how classy Romola is, because she showed how much she respected and trusted Ronan’s performance, enough as to completely model her own Briony on Ronan’s Briony, despite being 12 years her senior. And are we confused yet? I am a little.
And she got so very little recognition for it! Which is kind of bound to happen when you have Knightley and McAvoy and everyone overlooks everyone else because LOOK, SHINY!
But as a Romola fan you better get used to it. Because she may just be the most underrated actor of our generation. Period.
Sophy says: I wish they’d hurry up and give her a BAFTA so I can hang my boxing gloves up
06. Gwendolen Harleth in ‘Daniel Deronda’ (2002)
“It’s so funny when people say: ‘Do you see yourself in Gwendolen?’ and I say: ‘Yes’, and people seem really shocked, like you said something appalling. But I think she’s like so many young, clever, beautiful, spoilt young women who lived in an age that didn’t afford women the opportunity to express creativity or intellect.” – on Gwendolen Harleth
Sophy says: This is the very first time I ever saw Romola in anything and it was pretty much an instant rabid fan situation. I remember looking her up after finishing the mini-series and being shocked to see how young she was, because her performance had been so layered and so assured.
Plus okay the instant rabid fan thing might also have been to do with her being jaw-droppingly beautiful with the pale skin and the bright eyes and the blonde, blonde, blonde, and the poofy, swishy dresses and hats on jaunty angles.
That’s kind of the great thing about Romola though; she’s a true chameleon. I mean, I watched this and concluded she was one of the most gorgeous creatures on the planet and quite regal and mature. And then I watched I Capture The Castle, and I was like WHAT? THAT MOUSY LITTLE GIRL? HOW IS THIS THE SAME PERSON? And you know then she was all glorious and princessy again in Amazing Grace. And then there was Atonement in which she managed to look positively plain and somewhat creepy.
I actually remember reading a review of one of her films circa Atonement in which Romola was deemed a crumby actress because “every time I see her in something I don’t even know that it’s her until I see her name on imdb.” That, to them, made her unmemorable. That, to me, makes her brilliant.
Rin says: That person can go die in a fire, AND NEVER REVIEW ANYTHING EVER AGAIN.
This was my first viewing of Romola too, thanks to Sophy’s ranting and raving. She sent me a copy of it, but the second CD was corrupt and I was so desperate to finish watching it that I had JB Hi-Fi order it in especially. At the time she sold the project to me via the means of Hugh Dancy — “He’s the Orlando Bloom you can actually like!” and I love Hugh Dancy, I really do, but by the end of Daniel Deronda, it was Romola that stood out.
Sophy says: Right! And it was an impressive cast all around – you really had to bring something to the table to stand out in that crowd.
I loved all of the characters in Daniel Deronda – okay, I may have loved to hate some of them cough Grandcourt will haunt me in my nightmares cough – but Gwendolen was my favourite, and that’s largely down to the way Romola played her. She really made her likeable, even as you were angry with her, someone you wanted to wrap in a blanket and feed pie to, even as you were thinking “Girl, you brought this all on yourself.” And that final scene? “I shall be better for having known you,” nearly killed me with poignancy.
Rin says: And apart from ROMOLAROMOLAROMOLA, you should just watch Daniel Deronda because it’s brilliant. And moving. And BBC and..and..donuts? I spent the whole time wanting this to happen and maybe it did and maybe it didn’t (NO SPOILERS!), but maybe the ending will surprise you.
05. Mary Bryant in ‘Mary Bryant’ (2005)
“It was so embarrassing. You’re playing a character who’s achieved all these amazing things and trying to represent all the challenges of her life and you’re actually just puking over the side of the boat the whole time.” – on Mary Bryant
Sophy says: ROMOLA/AUSTRALIA FOREVER.
In Mary Bryant Romola plays the titular character, a convict banished to the other end of the world for stealing bread, who suffers and strives through heartbreak and hardship. In case you were wondering, yes, Romola does like playing strong women who are determined to self-determine, no matter when or where or into what kind of life they were born. As she says: “I can only do something that my sister or my daughter, if I have one, could watch and feel positive about. That rules a lot out.”
Rin says: And yes.
We spend most of our time dreaming about how if Romola loves Australia, then Romola loves Rophy.
And thus, if you love Rophy, and Australia, and bread, watch this.
04. Angel Deverell in ‘Angel’ (2007)
“Later my agent told me François thought I was very good but not glamorous enough, so I tidied myself up a bit and went back a second time. I guess he didn’t like my cardigan!” – on the audition process
Sophy says: HE DIDN’T LIKE HER CARDIGAN. He did like her though. Bumpy audition process aside, Romola was Ozon’s only choice for his first English language feature. And you know why? Because she’s damn smart and sensitive. Apparently all sorts of Nicole Kidmans and Naomi Wattsesesess were clamouring to work with Ozon but he only had eyes for Romola and her dodgy cardigan because she was the one who really got what he was trying to do. See, she actually liked the character, which meant that she didn’t play her as a caricature or as a cautionary tale. She played her as a human being, looming through life, wholly unaware of her own smallness. And that, for me, was crucial to the success of the film.
And it is a film that barely succeeds, by which I don’t mean that it scrapes a pass mark, but rather that it is glorious by the skin of its teeth. I can guarantee that many of you, if you watched it, would pretty much think it was rubbish. And that’s fair enough, because there is a level on which the whole point of it is that it is rubbish. It’s a silly, swoony, frothy melodrama about a romance novelist who was not remembered – not even for being an utterly ridiculous human being. And that is precisely what makes it also a very poignant and incisive discussion as to the nature of art, permanence, and the purpose of existence.
Romola has described this performance as the one she is proudest of to date. Whilst it’s not my favourite of her characters, I do think that’s a fair call.
I also love that they managed to progress her from a teenager, really no more than a child, to a middle-aged woman, via only make-up, changes in hair and, you know, her acting.
Also, this face is the best thing ever.
Rin says: Angel is probably one of my least favourite Romola projects, however that in of itself makes it amazing and watch-worthy because her projects are so out-of-this-world-comma-how-can-this-be-so-good-I-don’t-understand-please-hold-me that being the ‘least favourite’ still makes it a million times better than all the rubbish that’s out there today.
You can tell that Romola threw everything she had into this role, and anyone less capable than her would have failed, because it’s not just about a single moment in a character’s life, it is their life.
Plus there’s one point in the movie where she looks like a crazy old cat lady and that alone means you should watch it.
Sophy says: CAT LADY ROMOLA IS MY LIFE.
03. Sugar in ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ (2011)
“I thought Sugar was a fantastically interesting creation because she encapsulates quite a lot of contemporary concerns relating to women, power and sexuality. I thought these themes were discussed quite honestly and accurately in the adaptation, which is not always the case, especially in television and film adaptations about prostitution.” – on Sugar
Sophy says: Oh god, this mini-series. Utterly amazing. I watched it once, read the book, watched it again, nitpicked the adaptation within an inch of its life and still declared it a marvelous piece of television. And Romola’s performance as Sugar, a strong-minded and peculiarly powerful young prostitute in the 19th century, is nothing short of sublime.
Spoiler alert, for those who haven’t seen it, but that part in the finale episode when she clutches tightly at little Sophie Rackham and defies William to do this to her child. Oh my god? ACTUAL CHILLS.
I HAD TO GO TO THE ALL CAPS PLACE JUST THINKING ABOUT IT.
Also it’s worth noting that Romola does some of her very best voice-acting in this project. Her opening monologue is a strange mix of haunting and inviting, and kind of sounds like being touched gently against your will? Romola’s voice? A tender molestation? Um?
Whatever. Let’s just call her the female Alan Rickman.
Rin says: I love your off the cuff remarks and how you try to wave them away like nothing happened.
Sophy says: Purple Monkey Dishwasher?
Rin says: That is always the answer.
BUT. This is also one of the most visually gorgeous mini-series you will ever come across. I mean, the hair and the makeup and the costumes are one thing, but the colours and the cinematography are simply stunning too. In Rophy terms, yes, I was pantless.
ALSO, I JUST KNOW THAT THERE ARE SOME X-FILES/GILLIAN ANDERSON FANS HERE. She’s in this movie. You won’t recognise her. She’s famazing. Watch.
Sophy says: Gillian is making quite a name for herself as a… wait. I won’t spoil you. I want you to pick her out of the line-up.
02. Anne Keyes in ‘Glorious 39’ (2009)
“I knew it was such a demanding and large part that there were only a few people in Britain who were up to it. I had watched Romola’s career with great interest since she debuted in cinema in I Capture The Castle, which I thought she was lovely in, and then more recently she was sensational in Atonement. And she’s an extraordinary actress and enormously intelligent and articulate, but she also commits, all the time.” – Stephen Poliakoff on Romola
Sophy says: THIS MOVIE. There are loads of great quotes from Romola discussing the finer points of Anne’s character and situating her in her political context… but I don’t want to tell you about any of that. Go watch the movie, and then go read about it. That’s how it should work.
I was so excited when I heard Romola was working with Stephen Poliakoff, as I love his work, and feel that he is particularly good at creating the kind of intense, somewhat inscrutable characters that make for truly memorable performance. It turns out that Anne Keyes isn’t inscrutable, or particularly intense, at least not until circumstances make her intense. I think Romola explained it best when she said she’s the normal one in the mix. She’s the audience. She’s us, and like us, she’s not supposed to know what happens next, to the point where Poliakoff wouldn’t let her do all her usual researching everything under the sun. There is nothing secret about her character. We don’t discover Anne throughout the film, rather we discover the world with Anne.
And that’s how you know Romola Garai is fucking gold. Because the character she’s playing is not particularly memorable. She’s not supposed to be. And yet Romola’s performance? I’m not forgetting it.
Rin says: Romola is doomed to be etched onto our brains forever.It’ll be bloody and there will be brain damage, sure, but we’ll never ever forget.
And I love that Poliakoff makes it a point to mention how Romola commits all the time, because that’s exactly what you get with her. She is fearless when it comes to acting and that is incredibly special.
I was not fearless during this film. I was scared. And cursing Sophy because she knows I never want to watch anything remotely frightening, but I survived! Sure I had to minimise the window at times and turn down the volume, but it was worth it. Entirely. Besides, it wasn’t even particularly scary.
But it was the kind of terror in just never knowing whatthefuck was happening. Like, really happening. And it was the fear of the unknown that really got to me. There is a feeling of uncertainty that stays with you throughout the film, and it makes you uncomfortable and at times you forgot how to breathe, but I love that. I love when a movie reaches out and grabs you and doesn’t let go. Not even after it’s ended.
There is also that scene from the first screencap with Romola in a yellow dress in a field and oh my god.
01. Emma Woodhouse in ‘Emma’ (2009)
“I suppose one big thing I wanted her to be was joyful. I didn’t want her to be kind of thin-lipped. A lot of those words associated with Emma, in terms of her being manipulative and scheming, kind of imply a sort of snideness and I just wanted to get rid of all that. She’s actually a bull in a china shop. She goes into every situation completely misjudging every character because she doesn’t take the time to do it and that suggested very different things to me physically – that she was a joyous personality with a big laugh and went into situations in a much more ebullient way.” – on Emma Woodhouse
Sophy says: Okay, this is the Emma I’ve been waiting for my whole life. Emma is my favourite Austen novel, and every adaptation up till this one has disappointed me bitterly, unless you count Clueless, which you probably should if you’re going to count trash like that Paltrow version.
In some respects Romola Garai’s take on Emma actually reminds me very much of Alicia Silverstone’s take on Emma in the form of Cher. She is bright and joyful, unthinking rather than unfeeling, though not insipidly good. Honestly I think Romola’s quote says everything I feel about the character of Emma Woodhouse and the ways she’s been misrepresented on screen. When she stresses how she wanted to avoid making Emma snide and “thin-lipped”, she may as well be talking about Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance. And though Kate Beckinsale was less overtly nauseating in the role than Paltrow, she still played Emma with an unpleasant degree of scheming and artificial coyness that made the adaptation a failure to me. Well, to be fair, it wasn’t all Beckinsale’s fault. Some credit for the failure has to go to the part where they had Knightley reminisce about holding her when she was a baby right before their make-out session.
Not the time, dude. Not the time.
But back to Romola. This performance is one of the best things that has ever come into being. The joy, the wit, the childishness, the decency, the angst, the love and the vigour of Emma Woodhouse… it’s all there. And there has never been anything so gorgeous as her face in the carriage, the moment she realizes where her husband is taking her.
Oh. The seaside.
I really want to start singling out magic moments, but if I do I’ll just start giving you a frame by frame of all four episodes. Really.
So I’m just going to run away screaming. And if you have any fondness for Austen, I’d recommend that you buy this DVD immediately. You need it in your lives, because it’s not just Romola who’s perfect – it’s pretty much everything about this adaptation.
AND I’M JUST SCREAMING. AND SCREAMING.
Rin says: You know, I feel like whenever people talk about BBC and their Jane Austens, everyone is always talking about Pride and Prejudice.. which yeah, as they should. But really? This is where it’s at. It was one of those times when I was say, a few minutes into the first episode and had to pause and check how much time was left and how many episodes I had left because it was that good and I wanted to know how important it was to savour every minute. BECAUSE SOMETHING THIS GOOD SHOULDN’T BE OVER SO QUICK. But I gobbled it all up in one go and felt like I had just eaten all the chocolate in the cupboard and I was so satisfied, but then sick to my stomach that there was no more left. A moment on the lips.. forever on the hips.
So yes, please watch Emma straightaway. YOU WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.
Romola is the perfect Emma. Well, she’s kind of perfect in all of her roles, but THIS ESPECIALLY. Because of all the nuances and the way you can’t help but want to love her. Forever. And keep her in your pocket.
Sophy says: POCKET EMMA. Can you make me one to have and keep?
Rin says: One day you’re going to have your jeans laundered and when they check your pockets all these mini women are going to fall out and there will be a lot of explaining you’ll have to do.
Sophy says: My pockets have nothing on the glass cage.
Rophy says: In conclusion, you should watch all of the above, as well as the second series of The Hour whenever it decides to show up on the BBC. She was too late for our list, but Bel Rowley most definitely ranks alongside these illustrious ten. So watch, Rophites! Watch and swoon.