As ‘Underworld: Blood Wars’ opens in UK cinemas, homegrown star Kate Beckinsale lights up the big screen once again as vampire warrior Selene. This is the 43-year old actress’s fourth time in the role (fifth if we count her brief cameo in prequel ‘Underworld: Rise of the Lycans’), and its emergence naturally leads us to consider the highs and lows of Beckinsale’s career thus far – and ask whether the one-time rising star might be on the rise once again.
As the daughter of the late sitcom icon Richard Beckinsale (of ‘Porridge’ and ‘Rising Damp’), it’s not unreasonable to say that Kate Beckinsale came to the screen as British acting royalty of sorts. As such, she was in suitably auspicious company on her film debut in Kenneth Branagh’s celebrated 1993 Shakespeare adaptation ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ admirably holding her own alongside such established stars as Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, and of course Branagh himself.
Post-‘Much Ado,’ Beckinsale received widespread praise for TV work including 1995’s ‘Cold Comfort Farm,’ and the title role in a 1996 ITV adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’; unfortunately, this arrived in the wake of Miramax’s high-profile big screen adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow, which may have stolen their thunder somewhat.
1997 comedy ‘Shooting Fish’ followed, before Beckinsale crossed the pond to pursue work Stateside. After a number of low-key US indies (‘The Last Days of Disco,’ ‘Brokedown Palace’), she landed her biggest part yet in 2001 – but it wasn’t necessarily the most auspicious starting point for her Hollywood leading lady career.
‘Pearl Harbor’ was a mega-budget World War 2 drama based around the infamous 1941 attack on the US, from the power duo of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay. It was clearly intended as the next ‘Titanic,’ and as such hopes were high that it would elevate Beckinsale to Kate Winslet levels, both in star status and credibility as a thespian.
Things didn’t quite turn out that way. Though ‘Pearl Harbor’ proved a reasonable commercial success, it was almost universally panned by critics for its hackneyed plot, laboured performances and somewhat offensive historical inaccuracies. The film has long been a big talking point in Beckinsale’s career thanks to her reportedly very icy relationship with director Bay, who notoriously demanded the actress lose weight for the role, and made less than flattering remarks about her looks.
Still, even if Bay didn’t think she was that great-looking, many felt otherwise, and Beckinsale went on to a number of roles which traded primarily on her sense of glamour. This was most pointedly the case with what would perhaps unexpectedly prove to be her signature role: the gun-toting, black PVC-clad ‘death dealer’ Selene in 2003’s vampires-versus-werewolves fantasy ‘Underworld.’
Hitting screens in the wake of the ‘Blade’ movies and ‘Resident Evil,’ the film from director Len Wiseman (later Beckinsale’s husband, though they’ve since separated) was part of a new breed of slick action-horror crossovers. While it met a lukewarm critical response, ‘Underworld’ soon earned a cult following, and performed just well enough (a little shy of $96 million worldwide, off a $22 million budget) to spawn follow-up ‘Underworld: Evolution’ in 2006. Three further sequels have followed to date.
‘Underworld’ also paved the way to Beckinsale being cast in another action-horror crossover, Universal’s ‘Van Helsing,’ in which the actress portrayed a gypsy warrior battling alongside Hugh Jackman as the iconic monster hunter. With these two movies, Beckinsale had carved a whole new niche for herself as an action heroine, an area in which she proved highly adept. Further action roles followed in ‘Whiteout,’ Wiseman’s ‘Total Recall’ remake, and of course the ‘Underworld’ sequels.
Alas, what none of these films managed to do was establish Beckinsale as a really bankable star. Despite its endurance, the ‘Underworld’ series has only grossed $521 million at the global box office to date; and while ‘Van Helsing’ may have given her a second major blockbuster lead, like ‘Pearl Harbor’ before it the film was mauled by the critics, and proved only a middling commercial success. Further high profile roles also failed to make the desired impression, such as Martin Scorcese’s ‘The Aviator’ in which Beckinsale portrayed Hollywood legend Ava Gardner, but – along with the bulk of the cast – was completely overshadowed by Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning turn as Katharine Hepburn.
The years since have seen Beckinsale appear in low-budget horrors ‘Vacancy’ and ‘Stonehearst Asylum,’ as well as taking largely thankless love interest roles opposite Adam Sandler in ‘Click’ and Simon Pegg in ‘Absolutely Anything.’ We could debate whether it comes down to the long-argued scarcity of great roles for women, but for a good many years, by accident or design, the actress seems to have been taking a lower profile.
However, things changed in 2016 as Beckinsale returned to costume drama/Jane Austen territory with the lead in period comedy ‘Love & Friendship.’ Made for only $3 million, the film proved a big critical and commercial success, earning widespread acclaim and, for the first time, a number of award nods for Beckinsale: the 2016 Evening Standard British Film Awards named her Best Actress, whilst she received a Best Actress nomination from the Critic’s Choice Awards, among others.
So, can we anticipate a Beckinsalaissance (we don’t expect that to catch on) in the near future? It’s hard to say. While it’s been hinted that ‘Underworld: Blood Wars’ might lead to yet more sequels, existing series fans are the only ones likely to care, and upcoming horror movie ‘Disappointments Room’ doesn’t look too likely to make much of a splash. However, Beckinsale is adding another string to her bow by turning producer for the first time, on an adaptation of novel ‘The Chocolate Money’; although there’s no indication of whether she also intends to star in the film, it doesn’t seem too unlikely. 2017 will also see her appear in ‘The Only Living Boy in New York,’ new drama from director Marc Webb (‘500 Days of Summer,’ ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’).
Whether or not Beckinsale is ever classed as one of the greats, she’s still screen royalty to us. Hopefully bigger and better things are just over the horizon for her – but failing that, there’s always Selene.
‘Underworld: Blood Wars’ is in cinemas now.