I really wanted to say that I think of her first from Twelfth Night. After all, she’s very good indeed in it—an underrated performance in an underrated picture. People don’t talk about it enough, mostly because they haven’t even heard of it, much less seen it. The scene where Maria, Feste (Sir Ben Kingsley), Sir Toby Belch (Mel Smith), and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant) are sitting around and drinking together, and Feste sings “O Mistress Mine,” is quietly powerful. The look on her face as she sings along tells much, I think, about her character’s past, even though Shakespeare didn’t tell us anything about her character’s past. I really love that movie. However, yeah, she’s Dolores Umbridge.
It’s all part of the fine tradition of British actors doing popular film. Not just Harry Potter movies, though goodness knows Harry Potter is full of British actors you wouldn’t be surprised to find in Shakespeare. It’s part of how she and Emma Thompson have done so many movies together, really. (Including Harry Potter, where Thompson is Sybil Trelawney.) So many of the greats have careers like Staunton’s. She’s been in everything from, yes, Twelfth Night and assorted Harry Potter movies to Maleficent to Chicken Run. She’s done the requisite Dickens (a production of David Copperfield with such a packed cast that I want to see it despite my hatred of Dickens), she’s done various Wind in the Willows-based properties, and she’s done Midsomer Murders. She’s done The Canterbury Tales and Doctor Who.
She’s one of those people, in other words, who has an amazing career that we don’t talk about much. Sure, you see a lot of Umbridge memes, but we don’t even talk about the performance of Umbridge much. After all, she was called on in that movie to be the cruel and cheerful face of fascism. To prove that fascism isn’t all Malfoys. There are also the people who coldly and viciously go about doing what they think is their job without worrying about hurting people, because the people who are hurt are either those who deserve to be hurt or else casualties to the more important things, which are somehow never people themselves. It’s frankly chilling as hell to really think about, which makes it even weirder that a certain Secretary of Education seems to be leaning into the comparisons by dressing like Umbridge in public.
Staunton hasn’t had a lot of leading roles; she’s mostly cast as servants and aunts and so forth, from what I can tell. But she’s amazing in Vera Drake, where she plays a woman in ’50s England who provides abortions to lower-class women. It’s a tense piece which looks at the difference in class—abortion is theoretically illegal except under certain circumstances, but an upper class woman who is raped is able to go to a doctor and get a medical recommendation at the cost of a hundred guineas. Whereas Staunton as Vera is a woman who provides them for free because she thinks it’s a necessary service—presumably even poor women with a medical need wouldn’t be able to find a doctor willing to give them one. The doctor is allowed to keep providing his service; Vera goes to jail, depriving everyone around her of the many small things she does, not to mention the big ones.
She’s also, it turns out, played Mama Rose in Gypsy, which I’d quite like to see, and The Baker’s Wife in the original London production of Into the Woods. She’s been Miss Adelaide and Mrs. Lovett. She’s been Martha, Dorothy, Elektra, and Saint Joan. It turns out that Imelda Staunton is quietly one of the powerhouses of the British theatre as well as providing quality work on film and television. She’s not a name that comes up often—frankly, I should just get it over with and do a Harry Potter month to clear out a lot of the fine actors who are in those movies that I don’t always think about myself. She’s someone I probably should’ve gotten to earlier.