Helen McCrory, who has died of cancer aged 52, was already established among the leading stage actors of her generation when she became known as Cherie Blair in Stephen Frears’s movie The Queen (2006), starring Helen Mirren, and with Michael Sheen as Tony; and as the witch Narcissa Malfoy, mother of Draco, in the last three Harry Potter films.
Her brisk and slinky Cherie Blair was one in a line of suited authority figures and lawyers played by McCrory, culminating in an acidulous, brutally frank but deluded Tory prime minister in David Hare’s television drama Roadkill (2020), refusing to give a “big job” to Hugh Laurie’s shameless MP. In comparison, Narcissa was a “turn,” a Gothic hoot, for all her verve and suffocating evil.
But it was her imperious matriarch Aunt Polly in Peaky Blinders (five series, 2013-19), ruling the roost in the inter-war criminal Shelby family in Birmingham, and keeping tabs on the ill-gotten gains, that suggested her roots in complex dramatic performance on the stage.
In her last two roles at the National Theatre, she was truly outstanding: as Euripides’ murderous Medea in Carrie Cracknell’s 2014 revival on the Olivier stage, playing the full range of the character as a barbarian refugee descended from the sun god; and as the emotionally ravaged Hester Collyer in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, revived in 2016 in the Lyttelton, also directed by Cracknell, fully embodying the illogicality of passion, her features ablaze, said Michael Billington, “like a city in illumination”.
McCrory was small of stature but huge of spirit, ferocious, even feral, on the stage. No disrespect to the admirable Tricycle theatre (now the Kiln) in north London, but her tremendous 1995 Lady Macbeth opposite Lennie James, directed by Nicolas Kent, really should have reached a much wider audience. She was always compelling and poised, coiled like a cobra, ready for the fray.
She was elemental, fire and earth, and could encompass the world in a tragic embrace. She played great roles: Belvedira in Otway’s Venice Preserved at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, in 1994; the catalytic Anna in Pinter’s erotic dreamscape Old Times at the Donmar Warehouse in 2004; the tragically destructive Rebecca West in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm (Freud’s favourite Ibsen play) at the Almeida in 2008. Twenty years ago, I had her down as “the next Judi Dench”. Now, as Richard Eyre has said, we are deprived of all the great performances she might have delivered in the coming years, in new plays as well as in the classics.
Born in London, she was the eldest of three children of Iain McCrory, a Glaswegian diplomat from a Catholic background, and his wife, Ann (nee Morgans), a Cardiff-born physiotherapist from a Welsh Protestant family. The family was peripatetic due to her father’s postings abroad – in Cameroon, Tanzania, Norway and France.
Helen returned to Britain to attend Queenswood school, in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, where her instinctive acting talent was encouraged by the drama teacher Thane Bettany (father of the actor Paul Bettany). She auditioned for the Drama Centre school in London and told the director who turned her down, Christopher Fettes, that she would apply every year until they admitted her. One year later, after she had worked in Paris and travelled in Italy, they did.
She made a professional debut at the Harrogate theatre in 1990, as Gwendolen Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest. Critics started sitting up when she played the flighty Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice at the Royal Exchange in 1991 – “excellent” said the Independent, while the Times noted “a streak of gleeful recklessness”.
Eyre brought her almost immediately into the National, where she joined the 1992 revival of Declan Donnellan’s fine 1989 production of Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna, translated by Adrian Mitchell. She put down a serious marker first as Rose Trelawny in John Caird’s wonderful 1993 revival of Pinero’s hymn to a changing theatre, Trelawny of the Wells, then as an exuberant and radiant Nina in Caird’s staging of Chekhov’s The Seagull, particularly impressive as the crushed leftovers of her own dream in the last act.
Like all the best actors, McCrory knew how to build a performance over a stage time of two or three hours, and she had the vocal and intellectual equipment to go to the limits. Even in Simon Callow’s over-ambitious staging of Les Enfants du Paradis for the RSC at the Barbican in 1996, she was gorgeous in the Arletty role of the bewitching Garance. And she was both riveting and disturbing as the disguised princess – trying to combat political injustice but thwarted by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s appealing prince – in Marivaux’s glorious Triumph of Love, translated by Martin Crimp and directed at the Almeida in 1999 by James Macdonald.
On the night of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, it was eerily silent along the Euston Road, but the incongruity of a Chekhov play – Hare’s version of Platonov – opening in a vast hangar-like shed at King’s Cross, a temporary outpost of the Almeida, was mitigated by her performance as the seductive general’s widow Anna Petrovna in Jonathan Kent’s epic production: “Smoke me like a cigarette,” she challenged Aidan Gillen’s chaotic, womanising antihero, before steam-rollering him.
Sam Mendes signed off at the Donmar Warehouse in 2002 with a brilliant double of Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night. A crack company included Simon Russell Beale, Emily Watson, David Bradley and Mark Strong. McCrory was Chekhov’s languorous Yelena and Shakespeare’s Olivia, again charting a revelatory journey from mourning her father to coming alive, blazing sexily. The shows were a knockout success in London and New York.
Another fire was lit in 2003 when she met Damian Lewis in rehearsals for Joanna Laurens’s eccentric verse play Five Gold Rings (a Christmas family reunion of rattling skeletons in cupboards and an adulterous pact) again at the Almeida, directed by Michael Attenborough. Off stage, they became a glamorous power couple; the one film credit they shared was in Richard Bracewell’s Bill (2015), Lewis a shadowy naval bigwig, Sir Richard Hawkins, McCrory a scabrous Queen Elizabeth I.
She chipped in with another Tory MP in Mendes’s second Bond film, Skyfall (2012), and featured in Tom Hooper’s wartime horror film involving a bunch of evacuated children in a haunted house, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (2014). Her last movie was the extraordinary Loving Vincent (2017), “the first fully painted feature film” about the artist Van Gogh and the circumstances of his death. One of her last television roles was a stern defending counsel, Sonia Woodley QC, in James Graham’s Quiz (2020), about the “coughing major” on Who Wants to be a Millionaire; and she voiced Stelmaria in the BBC’s His Dark Materials adaptation (2019-20).
McCrory married Lewis in 2007. Both were active patrons of the charity Scene & Heard, which puts volunteer professional actors to work on scripts written by children in north London schools. They also raised more than £1m for a charity arranging food for NHS staff during the pandemic. McCrory was appointed OBE in 2017.
She is survived by Lewis and their children, Manon and Gulliver; by her parents; and by her sister, Catherine, and brother, Jon.
• Helen Elizabeth McCrory, actor, born 17 August 1968; died 16 April 2021