In praise of… Penelope Wilton

Wilton as Queen Gertrude in 2009.
As Isobel Crawley (or rather, Lady Merton) in Downtown Abbey.
As Irmgard Litten in Taken at Midnight, which won her a Best Actress Olivier in 2015.
Look at that face!

On Friday evening, the Cabinet Office released the list of the Queen’s Birthday Honours, and we fans of Penelope Wilton finally had something to celebrate – she had been made a Dame, at long last. It was an honour well deserved, and much overdue.

Wilton is one of those actresses who never seem to attract too much attention (and if you are jealously protective of your idols like me, that’s usually a good thing), yet those who love her, love her. I have no idea why she’s so important to me – why she, and not Judi Dench (whom I do love, just not as much), or Meryl Streep or whoever – other than that somehow I always feel like I can identify with her and the way she plays her characters.

I’m one of the about three people who symphatise with Jean Ainsley, her character in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – Wilton has the talent, the insight, to show how a character who, on the surface, is a bit of a miserable cow, is really rather lonely and disappointed in her life, as well as being forced to watch by as her husband quickly falls in love with another woman and everyone around them is being okay with that. My favourite moment of all six series of Downton Abbey (I only watched for her and Maggie Smith! Honest!) came in the final episode when Isobel’s boyfriend Lord Merton told her that he’s dying a slow, horrible death – her face barely changed, but the emotions the character went through were all there, plain to see. It is this ability to bare the inner lives of the characters she plays that I admire most of all about her work. I saw Taken at Midnight no less than three times last year, and she made a decent, serviceable production into an excellent one – she was the unwavering centre of it, disappearing completely into the woman fighting a losing battle to save her son from another slow, horrible death. It was a true inspiration to watch.

Penelope Wilton will play the Queen in the upcoming film BFG (opens July 22nd in the UK) and also appear in ITV’s new drama Brief Encounters starting sometime in July. Her investiture will be later this year.





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