Sunday, June 20, 2010
Take One: Collateral marriage damage
If you want nearly two hours of Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche miserably humping each other in dull, anonymous locations (all frightfully well lit of course) then Damage is good to go. Louis Malle's, and scriptwriter David Hare's, adaptation of Josephine Hart's novel, about a member of Parliament's affair with his son's girlfriend, is rather too inert and tasteful for its own good, and was only partially praised but largely ignored perhaps for those reasons. Many liked it, but many more had issues with it (or so I've read). I had a hard time remembering much about the film, save for the sullen, cheerless sex scenes mentioned above... and one other aspect: Miranda Richardson, playing Irons' character's dutiful wife. Gosh, I love me some Binoche, but good grief Richardson owned this one. After delivering the goods from the film's perimeter, she swooped in late in the game (in that scene) and scored an acting goal from the sidelines. Scene-stealer = film stealer. One-woman pitch invasion. Not that she lightens the tone any: she conjures up a storm and smashes the teacup with it, wreaking some major vengeful emotional havoc just before the film's close.
Do we all love a performance where a mourning mother lets rip with maternal rage? Well, Richardson adds another to a long lineage of wondrously woeful wailers (see: Sally Field in Steel Magnolias, Naomi Watts in 21 Grams, etc). Her big scene may have been one long Oscar clip (the scene was surely the reason why Richardson was nominated, if truth be told) but it works; it's appropriately positioned and rightfully fraught considering the plot's circumstances. And it's the one moment where someone (Ingrid) and something (untethered emotion) pierces through Damage's coldly austere veneer. Richardson dredges the pain from deep in the gut: the damage of the title erupts through her.
Stephen (Irons) has, through his affair with Anna (Binoche), inadvertently caused his son Martyn's (Rupert Graves) death. We don't see the moment when Ingrid finds out about either, and we don't see the anger or grief embodied on screen; this has passed for Ingrid, withheld by Malle. We see the aftermath, the grief-stricken path that the emotional damage has caused, and Ingrid's utter unconcern for Stephen when she confronts him.
Richardson more than makes up for being on the periphery for much of the film here. Stephen comes home and sees Ingrid crying, slumped on the kitchen counter. The moment is awwwwk...ward. What does someone say in this situation? There's a pre-emptive feeling that it ain't gonna be pleasant.
"The pain was unbearable..." Start as you mean to go on, Miranda. "...I was breaking myself." Ingrid looks at Stephen with a questioning fascination:
"Why didn't you kill yourself? You should have killed yourself when it began."
That look turns sour, anger resurfaces: "Didn't you know? What, you thought you could go on? Every day - into the future. Go on betraying us both every day." It's clear she isn't spear-heading a marriage salvage operation - it's questionable whether she's capable of salvaging her own life from any of this. "You should have killed yourself when you first realised. Then I would've been able to mourn. It would've been hard, but I would have wept." Ingrid starts to make coffee but instead completely breaks down. Richardson furiously, yet calmly, allows all pretences collapse irreversibly away from her character. It's actually hard to watch, but then moments like this in a marriage are never pretty. It's ugly. Real. Right.
This is where Richardson, in one small but devastating instance, once again cements her reputation as one of the finest (character) actresses working. It's a performance that juts out of the film like a jagged rock. The film needed to be torn apart; Richardson took an axe and shaped it in the image of a broken woman. Watch Damage (again?) for her if for little else.
Take Two: Hey Jude, don't make it bad
What most folk probably remember about The Crying Game is the surprise moment when we discover Dil's, ahem, big secret. If not, then Jaye Davidson's Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor was a good enough reminder. But aside from the gender hubbub the film contained a quartet of great performances, not least was Richardson's as IRA member Jude. (Why she and Forest Whitaker weren't nominated alongside Davidson and Stephen Rea is baffling - although I guess Richardson's '93 nod for Damage unofficially included, as is the Academy's way, both The Crying Game and Enchanted April that year.)
Sporting a finely-trimmed black bob - two years before Uma in Pulp Fiction - and a severe skirt suit, she cut an imposing figure tracking down ex-IRA co-member Fergus (Rea), who absconded, after the fudged killing of British soldier Jody (Whitaker), to the Big Smoke to seek out Jody's girlfriend Dil, who he eventually falls for.
Jude's a rather horrible creation: an icy, slightly unhinged Northern Irish terrorist; the villain of the piece, so to speak. Richardson takes her from playfully devious flirt to skittishly loopy hitwoman over the film's duration. When she arrives in London, on Fergus' trail, she hounds him wherever he goes, blackmailing him into carrying out one last assassination lest she reveal to Dil his past. She's everywhere, a harbinger of doom and a svelte, snakish reminder of his past bad deeds. She's guilt personified; a lipsticked grim reaper.
For all of Jude's vile effrontery, Richardson adds a layer of indecision and nervousness to her in the London scenes. When she turns up at Fergus' house to attempt to get exactly what she wants from him, there's something about her that almost cracks. She threatens blackmail, but churlishly suggests sex, too. Does she love Fergus, or is it part of her act? She callously uses her femininity to get what she wants; and if that fails, as it does with Fergus (Dil has something that Jude can't offer), she uses the gun in her garter.
There's a thin line separating how she presents herself (she prepares at length for their meeting - director Neil Jordan frames her here in triplicate through a mirror, indicating the various facets of her persona) and how she reacts to Fergus' defensive aggression. She almost slips up dealing with him; and later on she undoubtedly does - not bargaining on Dil's vengeance. Jude's a scared woman, in too deep. If she didn't meet the fate she does by the film's ending, she would've been finished anyway: either way, she'd get it in the neck.
In some ways she's a helpless case, but memorably so (Jude is maybe the film's most resonant element, Dil's revelation notwithstanding). Richardson cleverly allows us to glean, if we want to, other dimensions to Jude - separate from the sharp looks and cocksure dialogue - that point to an interesting fallibility within her. She takes the bare outline of the character as written and delectably colours it in. There aren't too many actresses who could have played Jude with the remarkable impact that Richardson manages.
Take Three: Kiss of the Spider women
Where to position Richardson in the pantheon of great British actresses? Not in the exclusive elder club of Dench, Mirren and Plowright. More in the class of Scacchi, Rampling and Scott Thomas? She's certainly more diverse than most in her choice of roles. Maybe she's most like Tilda Swinton, easefully flitting between genres and auteurs, arthouse and indie (and a big budget franchise flick or two squeezed in); singular deviators from typical career paths.
A fine example of her diversity: the trio of roles she plays in David Cronenberg's Spider. It's some of her best work. She's Spider's mum, Mrs. Cleg, rotten-toothed local trollop Yvonne and - possibly, probably - an incarnation of the halfway-housekeeper Mrs. Wilkinson (played by the late Lynn Redgrave elsewhere in the film). The blurring of her roles is attributable to Cronenberg's fractured narrative handling of Spider's (Ralph Fiennes) mind, but it's beautifully controlled by the way Richardson brings a distinct characterisation to all three women (less so for Mrs. Wilkinson, but then that is down to Croney's handling of the material). Richardson is essentially playing three fragments of Spider's perception; conflated components, tangled memories of one person.
Despite Spider having these three female presences throughout his life they are often kept at a remove (through the various plot turns), viewed by him as alternately fascinating and terrifying figures. Spider is all about one man's (boy's) imbalanced, wrongful view of women. Richardson alone takes the brunt of the gazeful Spider's eyes, and reflects back three angles of womanhood; not always pleasant, not always ideal; but they are substantially real - or as real as can be perceived through a schizophrenic mindset and the hallucinatory nature of the film (this is pure Cronenberg territory).
Richardson's not afraid to 'ugly-up' and revel in the grotty comings and goings of Yvonne. Nor, conversely, does she shy away from imbuing Mrs. Cleg with a motherly attentiveness, if not true maternal love. And Mrs. Wilkinson is the transmutable cipher in between. Cronenberg's camera never (deliberately) fully pins down this trio, but Richardson, through telling and minute shifts in performance style, does. She conveys all three with great dexterity; crafting these unknowable women into valid, complex characters that almost escape the confines of the web-like plot structure. Many great actresses have played the mother and the whore on film, but not a great many have managed both at the same time, and so interchangeably (often within one body) and so intensely subtle as Richardson does here. Her triple accomplishment is clear proof of her diverse expertise as an actress. The result is three exemplary performances in one exceptional film.
Of course there's been many other great roles: her debut as Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, in Dance with a Stranger; Spielberg's Empire of the Sun; a second Oscar nom (this time lead) in Tom & Viv; Robert Duvall's unlikely squeeze in The Apostle; a deceptively small but significant role in Sleepy Hollow; a kiss with Kidman in The Hours; Jennifer Jason Leigh's laudanum-addicted Kansas City kidnapee; eight screen queens (too numerous to mention) and a duchess (The Young Victoria); three great parts for Stephen Poliakoff; the regal weirdness of Southland Tales; Rita Skeeter in two Harry Potters; the wife in the 'Bastille' segment of Paris, je t'aime; and the completion '92's award-heavy hat-trick with Enchanted April.
She's a deft and talented comedienne, too. I can't not give mention to her childishly daft Queen Elizabeth 1 in Blackadder II - a personal favourite role (it would've been one of the Take Three selections if it weren't a TV show) and the work she's done on Absolutely Fabulous, Comic Relief and with the Comic Strip on TV. I was spoilt for choice. There's too much in her filmography that deserves attention. What's the Miranda Richardson role that means the most to you?