How You Know Her:
As good girl Amelia in Vanity Fair, Jennifer Gray’s replacement in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, and feisty Barbara Spooner, wife to William Wilberforce in Amazing Grace. Opposite James McAvoy in Rory O’Shea Was Here (Sometimes titled as Inside I’m Dancing), and friend and companion to Bryce Dallas Howard in As You Like It. Vivienne, the somewhat superfluous friend to Scarlett Johansson’s character in Woody Allen’s Scoop, and the elder Briony Tallis in Atonement. Starring in the World War II set Glorious 39; I Capture the Castle, where she lived with her poor family in a crumbling former castle, as Emma Woodhouse in a recent TV version of Emma, and the recent miniseries The Crimson Petal and the White for the BBC.
Why She’s Crushworthy:
I think I became acquainted with the existence of Romola Garai from Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Yes, that’s right, the Dirty Dancing sequel that came out in theatres about twenty years after the first film that was pretty much an exact copy of the original, except this time set in turbulent fifties Cuba. That wouldn’t really seem like it would be enough to recommend anyone. But for some reason she caught my attention. Now, perhaps that’s because her name is, in fact, Romola and my passion for overly verbose, Victorian, tomes written by women disguising themselves as men is apparent. But over the years as I’ve watched her pretty much constantly play second fiddle to more famous co-stars I think my admiration is solidified.
Garai wavers between blonde and red hair, depending on the role she’s taking on. The latter color makes her appear as a British version of Bryce Dallas Howard, so I was pretty amused when they both stared, as Rosalind and Celia respectively, in Kenneth Brannaugh’s As You Like It, transposed to feudal Japan. I owned this film, briefly, until it became permanently stuck in the bowels of my DVD player.
In the 2004 visually lush, though lacking… something, version of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, she played naïve good girl Amelia, the juxtaposition to Reese Witherspoon’s conniving Becky Sharpe. While Amelia is generally considered the heroine in Thackeray’s novel, the one who makes the right choices and is ultimately rewarded for her virtue, against Becky as anti-heroine the movie clearly focused all it’s energy on Becky. Ah well, Becky’s undoubtedly more interesting and considering Ms. Witherspoon was cast in the role it’s not surprising. But as the somewhat spare character she turned out to be in the film Garai still held her own against more veteran stars. If anyone was pay attention, which they generally weren’t.
Despite being the lead character in the Dirty Dancing sequel it’s probably Atonement for which Garai is the most recognizable. Taking over the pivotal role of Briony Tallis from the resplendent Saorsie Ronin was probably a daunting task, and while Garai wasn’t as electrifying as the younger actress she was perfect for the mind space that the character found herself in later in life; no longer the child who leaps to conclusions, but a young woman who can never make amends for what she’s done.
Garai is clearly used to playing supplemental characters so I was really pleased when she took the lead role in Glorious 39, a film that no one ever saw but which was realistically horrific, if not slightly bizarre. It’s about an adopted child, Anne (nicknamed Glorious), to a wealthy family. She’s beloved of everyone and hardly any distinction is made between her and the naturally born children. She’s beautiful and a budding film actress. However, it’s 1939; war is brewing throughout Europe and England stands on the brink of joining. War is complicated enough but it’s with abject horror that Anne discovers that her family are essentially Nazis working underground in England to ensure that war is never declared.
And there’s The Crimson Petal and the White, a TV miniseries based on the book by Michel Faber, which I had neither heard of nor read. Garai plays prostitute Sugar who’s the cream of the crop at Mrs. Castaway’s brothel in 1870s London. She popular enough that she can call her own shots, but not powerful enough to change her circumstances. That is until William Rackham enters her life and moves her into her own apartment, and later his own house as governess to his young daughter who’s been all but neglected by his mentally ill wife, for exclusive patronage. The relationship between Sugar and Rackham is a complex one, he’s unquestionably smitten, but initially she’s just doing what she’s paid to do, though as time goes on it does seem that she develops affection, if not love, for her patron, but always with a guarded caution that’s difficult to portray without words. Romola Garai was pretty much perfect for the role. With a raspy deep voice that sounded as if she’d breathed in just a sight too much second hand opium smoke, muted makeup, and consistently chapped lips she looked just how she should; beautiful but only incidentally.