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'The Grandeur of Miranda'

Miranda Richardson's brilliant, skittish talent has reached new heights with the "Crying Game" and "Damage" - By Lucy Hughes-Hallet (Vogue)

Miranda Richardson is telling me how relaxed she recently has become, how optimistic she now is.

She enumerates the things she is going to do from now on: "Not get so frazzled about things. Look after my health. Assume everything's going to be all right. Assume I will get work." Her high, clear voice is clipped smaller with each item. "Trusting," she says. "Trusting to life. That's the thing." At this point something flips. She switches to a squeaky, comic-cartoon voice with all the stresses in the wrong place: " It sounds wankEEE. I kno-ow." Then embarrassment gives way to superstitious dread. She starts talking at double speed. "Probably something dreadful will happen tomorrow, and I'll wish I never said it." Pause. Sudden flatness. "So that's kind of it, really." Then comes the urge to flee. "I'm going to have to go," she says, puts on her coat and bolts.

Miranda Richardson is not a scatterbrain. She is an actress of formidable intelligence and power. The skittishness and vague, nervous chatter she exhibits to journalists are indications not of feeble-mindedness but of her revulsion against the whole meretricious - but, for actors, inescapable - business of putting one's personality on show. "Good luck!" she said to me as I got out my tape recorder, as though I were a surgeon and she the patient on whom I was about to conduct a difficult and rather disgusting operation of which the outcome was uncertain.

On her own ground, a stage or a filmset, she knows exactly what she's doing and she does it with a sureness and intensity that her audiences and colleagues alike find breathtaking: Neil Jordan, in whose film The Crying Game she played a IRA terrorist, found himself actually frightened watching her act a scene in which she pistol-whips a hostage. "It shocked me. The way she did it was so rapid and callous." In Louis Malle's film, Damage, her character breaks down - for once the phrase is exact - on hearing of her son's death and husband's betrayal. Previously a secure and self-satisfied upper-middle-class wife, she is reduced to a state of grovelling misery, self-mutilating, howling. "Everybody came in prepared to work and work," says Richardson. "They were thinking, 'This is difficult. We've got a difficult day.' But in fact it was the most fluid part of the film." How it came so easily she can't or won't explain. "Don't know. Lap of the gods."

The gods' gift to her have been lavish. Bill Nicholson - in whose television play Sweet As You Are she played the wife of a man diagnosed with HIV - compares her to Anthony Hopkins. "She's an incredibly exiting, dangerous actress, not somebody who operates within conventional limits." Richare Eyre, who has directed her on stage in David Mamet's Edmond and in The Changeling, she resembles Maggie Smith. "She has her seriousness, her fastidiousness, her sense of privacy and her ability to transform herself." To Neil Jordan, she is " one of the best actresses working in England, or anywhere". Stephen Poliakoff, in whose new film, Century, she plays the heroine, sees her as having "the sensuality of Helen Mirren, and the formidable quality of Bette Davies - and that's a pretty pungent mixture." To Richard Curtis, co-writer of Blackadder, she is, quite simply, "a genius".

She is, sometimes, ravishingly beautiful. She has a wide face and a high brow, large pale eyes and exquisitely fine fair skin which, when she is performing, seems almost transparent. Every emotion shows through. But she is also a chameleon. When I met her she was heavily made-up - armoured, perhaps, against journalistic intrusion - and looked, for all the little-girl pigtails, glamorous in a disappointingly ordinary way. Her ability to change herself is notorious. Some time after she had starred in his play, Bill Nicholson, watching an episode of Blackadder, found himself riveted by the Dadaist comic violence of the actress playing Queen Elizabeth I. It was only when the credits came up that he realised it was Richardson. At the premiere of The Crying Game, Neil Jordan failed to recognise her. I have always thought of her as being thin-lipped, my mental image of her founded on Simon Gray's dazzling black comedy After Pilkington, in which her entire face and body seemed consumed and etiolated by homicidal battiness. Meeting her I was surprised to notice that her mouth is, in fact, seductively large and full. "She has a capacity for being possessed by a character," says Richard Eyre. "Even her features change."

She grew up in Southport, a seaside town in Lancashire. Her paternal grandfather had once been known for singing "West Country ditties" on the radio. Her mother belonged to an amateur opera group. While she was still at school she discovered that acting was "something I could do, it had an effect". She went to the Bristol Old Vic drama school and worked in provincial rep until Dance with a Stranger made her, at the age of twenty-five, an instant star.

Mike Newell, the film's director, was looking for an unknown actress to play Ruth Ellis, the nightclub hostess who shot her lover and hung for it. "We'd seen a great many people, all of whom were wonderful, and none of whom was right. People kept telling me there was this girl in rep somewhere. We arranged to see her. She walked in. She had a very highly charged sexual presence. She could act. She was it." Newell gave her her big break but he insists, "nobody has any right in Miranda. Nobody made her; she made herself."

All Richardson's colleagues praise her intelligence, her attention to detail. "I've got a reasonable brain, which I think is important," she says. "But hopefully I'm dealing with instincts as well." Richard Eyre describes how she works like a novelist, taking the clues a script provides to build up a complete, autonomous character, sometimes one considerably more complex and interesting than its writer intended. "It's all in the script," says Richardson. " That's the base line you keep coming back to. But it's between the lines as well as what the lines actually say." Bill Nicholson was as surprised as he was gratified to see what she made of her role in Sweet As You Are. "I thought I'd just written a nice wife." In Richardson's performance that "nice wife" went on a journey through the valley of the shadow of death - her husband is HIV positive, she is waiting for the result of her own test - which is mesmerisingly painful to watch. In Damage she took another nice-wife role and made something tragic out of almost nothing. "You should have seen the script," says Leslie Caron, who was also in the cast. "All she had was 'Pass the salt' and 'Have you brushed your teeth, darling?" From such banal material she managed to create the most vital and emotionally persuasive character in the whole film, a feat that won her an Oscar nomination.

"I never know how to talk about how I work," she says. She appears to enter into a character - or allow a character to enter into her - to an extraordinary extent. Making Dance with a Stranger - nine weeks of filming during which she worked every day, learning how to act for the cameras as she went along - would have been gruelling for anyone, but it affected her doubly, as though she felt not only her own exhaustion but also Ruth Ellis's pain. "I'd moved to a strange flat to be near where we were filming. I was quite isolated. Afterwards I was completely run down, physically, mentally, everything. I did the publicity tour feeling as if I were on another planet." Sometimes this capacity for entering another consciousness can be liberating. On the set of an Italian film where everything was going wrong, a very famous lighting-cameraman got taken by the throat. My character wore a red wig and that gave me the right to be angry." But it is also perilous, not something to be lightly discussed. "Nobody knows how she does it," says Mike Newell. "She translates her material into something incredibly private and secret." It's a process she herself feels to be dangerous. "You need a core from which to work. Otherwise you might as well be a drug addict, really. You'll overdose."

That core is very carefully guarded. "I don't answer questions about my private life," she says, and that applies to everyone, not just journalists. "She an extraordinary elusive person," says Richard Eyre, and he is one of her close friends. Her transparency in performance, her capacity for allowing every emotion to register on her face, is balanced by an extreme reticence offstage, She lives alone in an outer-London maisonette bought with the money she earned from Dance with a Stranger, and keeps cats. She doesn't deny that she has a love life but she makes it plain that it is none of my business - or yours. Richard Eyre reports that she can be "quite larky. She's witty, she laughs a lot. She's a joiner-in, not a wallflower at all," But those who know her less well find her almost alarmingly reserved. She's not a temperamental grande dame. On set she is workmanlike and supportive of her fellow actors, "A good sport", as Leslie Caron reports. But there is not a lot of chitchat, perhaps because she is too clever and too charged up to submit patiently to the time-wasting flimflam of everyday social intercourse.

Stephen Poliakoff ridicules "the cliché about Miranda being 'a very private person'", but even he concedes that she can be formidable. "She has her own way of coping with the world. She'll bark out a question: 'who's your best friend?' or 'How old are you?' and it's not just gallantry that stops one asking 'Well, how old are you?'. You just don't do that to Miranda." When he did once ask her, conversationally, what her next job would be, she snapped, "is this an interview?" - a stinging snub, coming from her. "That combustible feel she has on screen isn't manufactured," he says. "It's in her. You never quite know what's going to come out."

Not all her pleasures are secret. She likes pottering at home and eating buttered muffins. She is an intermittent shop-aholic, "then I get sick of myself. There's a puritanical side to me which says there really isn't anything I need, and if I'm in town I'll go straight home." She an enthusiastic and talented gardener, an amateur falconer and an occasional bird-watcher. On holiday with Richard Eyre in Scotland once she decamped day after day to watch an osprey which has settled in a nearby nature reserve. She is also an avid reader. Her taste is for the gothic, the mystical and the poetic. Sam Shepard's The Lie of the Mind - which ran at the Royal Court - is her favourite among the plays in which she has appeared. For pleasure she reads William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Michael Ondaatje - her latest find - Patrick White and Margaret Atwood. Her musical tastes are catholic, but again she has a recognisable preference for the intellectual and aesthetic refinement. She adores Benjamin Britten. She also litstens to Gregorian chant, jazz - especially Chet Baker - and Steely Dan.

These are sophisticated preferences. There is nothing facile about Miranda Richardson. As an actress she never takes the easy way out. "She has no clichés," says Richard Curtis. "We saw about 100 people when we were casting Queenie and every one was a version of a cliché except for her." "She is literally incapable of playing a generalised emotion," says Richard Eyre. "Everything she does is extraordinary detailed. That's what gives it its clarity." Her first leading role, back in her days in rep, was Sophia Western, the sweet, pretty heroine of Tom Jones. Looking back, she reflects that it was almost the only time she has played a straightforward, good-girls sort of role. "Maybe I can't do the ordinary. I don't know what you need. Longer hair? Bigger tits? A gravely voice?" And less subtlety, perhaps. As she says, "Maybe to do those people what you ought to do is not think so hard."

She never tries to ingratiate herself. "Most people, especially women, especially in this profession, are out to please," says Bill Nicholson. "With her that's not the deal. She doesn't seem in the least bit interested in whether you like her or not. It's quite intimidating. And I've not idea whether it's a sign of strength or a great big defence." Similarly, as an actress she has plenty of proper pride, but no vanity. In Damage she stripped off her nightdress to display her naked body - a courageous gesture, not so much because her figure is a little less than perfect as because she was asking at it, not - a in the case in ninety-nine per cent of the nude scenes - as an object of desire, but as something rejected, pathetic. When I asked her whether she has had any hesitation over accepting the part of a woman some ten years older than herself, she answered entirely in terms of the technical challenge such a role presented, as though looking youthful and lovely is just something she does when the job requires it.

She has chosen roles with an eye more to extending her range than to promoting her career. "I've tried to achieve the versatility of theatre on film," she says. She likes black comedy. "I see comic elements in all sorts of things - makes me a sick person I suppose." And she enjoys playing multiple personalities, such as the hit-woman-cum-disguise-artist in The Crying Game. This may have something to do with her own psychological make-up. "When I walk down the street I never feel alone. I don't mean that people are noticing me. They may or they may not. I'm just not alone. Divided self or something. Sometimes it's comforting. Sometimes it isn't."

The one time she did a film just for the money she was miserable: "It's like the finger of the Lord, It was a horrible experience," Though she doesn't name the film, I deduce it must have been The Bachelor, directed by Roberto Fienze, an Italian period-production in which Richardson played opposite Keith Carradine. She is chary of labelling herself a feminist but she turned down the offer of the role in Fatal Attraction eventually played by Glenn Close because "it was a deeply regressive film. I do make political choices in my work. And in the work place if I feel condescended to I react against that." She is also said to have turned down the female lead in David Mamet's Oleanna - which ran to rave reviews in New York and opens next month at the Royal Court - because she felt it to be misogynistic.

She has played a victim of brain damage, a boil encrusted mutant, a comically demented queen, two civilian murderesses, one terrorist and a long line of snappish, difficult women. Even in Die Kinder, the television series in which she was a mother desperate to retrieve her kidnapped children, she avoided easy softness, recognising that a woman under such a strain would be as much the irritable shrew as the grieving madonna. Her performances are compelling, not because she sets out to attract us, but - on the contrary - because of their rigorous integrity.

In Century, for almost the first time since she did Sophia Western in rep, she plays a proper heroine. She has had plenty of leading roles, and few would argue with Stephen Poliakoff's assertion that in Dance with a Stranger and After Pilkington she gave "two of the best screen performances of the Eighties" but, for all her beauty, she has seldom been cast as a romantic attraction. Her character in Century is by no means all big tits, long hair and a gravelly voice. She is a medical researcher, an emancipated woman who, in 1900 when such things were not done, has had an illegitimate child and is determined that her love affair - with a young doctor played by Clive Owen - should be conducted on her own terms. But for once Richardson has been given the opportunity to display a warmth and a sensuality for which there has been little place in her previous roles. "I get the impression Miranda's feeling very confident now," says Poliakoff, "There's a real zing around the studio whenever she's there. It's as though she feels ready to take her rightful place at last." That place, he believes - and I agree - is at the top of her profession: "Britain's answer to Glenn Close and Meryl Streep". She's a real movie star," says Leslie Caron, who should know. All of a sudden a lot of people are discovering that they feel just the way Mike Newell felt when, eight years after Dance with a Stranger, he worked with her again on Enchanted April. "She was full of authority, She knew just what she was doing. Best of all," he says, "I found I adored looking at her,"