Anne-Marie Duff has been wowing the critics in the revival of Terrence Rattigan’s Cause Célèbre at the Old Vic. She plays Alma Rattenbury, a woman at the centre of a criminal trial in 1935, in which she stood accused, along with her jealous teenage lover and chauffeur, George Stoner, of battering her much older husband, Francis Rattenbury, to death with a mallet.
Alma Rattenbury was devoured by publicity. The crowds packed the Old Bailey public gallery and savour the spectacle of a scarlet woman’s disgrace.
It is perhaps fitting that Duff should play Rattenbury with such empathy, because there are few actresses so acutely aware of the perils of self-exposure. Duff lives with her husband, the actor and film star James McAvoy, and their baby son in Crouch End, north London. Both actors are frequently interviewed, and when pressed, as they inevitably are, to provide some tastily confessional gobbet about each other, they steadfastly refuse to discuss their relationship. Duff has said: “It’s precious to me and what is precious to me is not up for grabs.”
Duff is now 40, but just a glimpse of the photos on the right give an idea of her range, which McCartney likens to Judi Dench: the actress who, though not a traditional beauty, has played Cleopatra convincingly, hopped easily from telly sitcoms to James Bond films to musicals.
The ability to play pretty is common between the two actresses.
Duff, whose mercurial, elfin face with its Bette Davis eyes can transform from beautiful to plain and back again, apparently according to its owner’s whim.
Certainly the leap from big sister in the Gallagher clan in Shameless to Margot Fonteyn in the BBC biopic is a great one.
The current obsession with celebrity, the paparazzi frenzy and the leaking of intimate moments, can undermine an actor’s work, giving away so much that we see them as a personality and miss the character their portraying. Duff has largely succeeded in dodging the media spotlight.
In discussing the Rattenbury case… she drew a parallel with how the modern media delights in tearing apart women who are considered famous: “We are still British, we still love to judge, and are terribly hypocritical. The way young women are depicted in the media today, are written about and how we are expected to be, makes it a complicated time, curious and a bit frightening.”
The many faces of Anne-Marie Duff: in Sameless, as the Virgin Queen, in Cause Célèbre, and as Margot Fonteyn