Although some may remember her as the young Judi Dench character in Last of the Blonde Bombshells (2000), Romola Garai first caught my attention in the BBC production of Daniel Deronda as the somewhat reckless, fortune-seeking Gwendolen Harleth, ‘soul mate’ of the eponymous character. While the performance itself was not necessarily noteworthy, there is no doubting that her striking appearance would garner notice and give her some plum opportunities in the near future.
The next couple of times I saw her were in the Kenneth Branagh production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It (2006), and as the 18–year old version of Briony Tallis in the critically acclaimed Atonement (2007), directed by Joe Wright. In Atonement, she had the task of bridging the performances of the pre-adolescent Briony (Saorsie Ronan) with Briony in her later years (Vanessa Redgrave).
Also in 2007, Romola played the lead role of Angel Deverell in the period piece Angel, directed by François Ozon (Swimming Pool, 8 Femmes). I only recently have caught this film, and it is a very strange picture, indeed. It took me some time, but eventually I have come to a place where I fully understand the irony and kitsch factor of this little-seen film was totally intentional. Her performance as a writer whose meteoric rise and later downfall is part bombastic, ridiculous and sometimes, even a bit grotesque. One moment you pity her, and in the next, you cannot believe she would be so daft.
For my part, I believe that her portrayal as meddlesome matchmaker Emma Woodhouse in Emma (2009) is the best interpretation of the character that I have seen in a while. For her efforts, Garai received a Golden Globe nomination.
In general, the response to her performances has been mixed to favorable, even if the project she was involved in was less enthusiastically received. Even in a movie like the universally derided Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights she was spared the worst criticism (at least by Roger Ebert).
Recently, she was seen in the television dramatic series The Hour, and the films Glorious 39 (2009), One Day and Junkhearts (both in 2011). She is also rumored to be starring in Muse (2013) alongside Armin Mueller-Stahl.
Personally, I think she is talented enough that given the right material – particularly the right balance of drama and light comedy – she would find her niche. Although I have not seen I Captured the Castle (2003) or Rory O’Shea Was Here/Inside I’m Dancing (2004), these films seem to fit this description. In both films, her performances received positive reviews.