Today: Radha Mitchell
Two Melindas in one for Woody Allen, a video game avatar made flesh in Silent Hill and a sensual magazine intern in High Art aside (plus central roles in The Waiting City, The Children of Huang Shi and Visitors), Radha Mitchell has peppered her career with solid, dependable and intriguing supporting roles. The leads may be few and far between, but Mitchell has delivered quality input on film and television for the last two decades. She's a genre girl at heart - an amiable trait about this Australian character actress.
Take One: Don't croc the boat, baby
Croc horror flick Rogue (2007) came out without much fanfare last year (limited US theatrical release, DVD premiere in the UK) - a shame as it was one of the more enjoyable monster movies of recent times. Essentially Lake Placid with a shade more atmosphere (but, alas, without Betty White's foulmouthed, mariticidal croc-lover), it did a forthright job of emulating Jaws, equalling Alligator and trumping, slightly, 2007's other Oz Crocodile-attack flick Black Water.
It required a dependable thespian presence, so it's no surprise director Greg Mclean went with an actress of Radha Mitchell's talents. She adds to the film a work(wo)manlike professionalism. As Kate Ryan, a boat-cruise tour guide on the waters of Kakadu National Park in the Australian outback, Mitchell steered a cast of human bait (including lead hunk Michael Vartan) away from the snapping gnashers of a stray, oversize scaly menace whilst matching the film's narrative efficacy with a cracking, fuss-free turn.
Mitchell is our tour guide through the bothersome reptile shenanigans, too. Vartan's travel writer is the audience identification vessel, but Kate's the one in the know. We trust her like we trusted Chief Brody. Mitchell plays her straight down the line, but both realistically fallible and clear minded.
Knockoff genre flicks like this are often just CV fillers in decent role droughts for many a performer, but Mitchell commands with aplomb and gives Kate a weary gravitas not always required in these types of film. Genres flicks are never beneath her - and I applaud her for this. Like other supporting actress peers such as Rosamund Pike and Rose Byrne Mitchell shows here and elsewhere (Surrogates, Silent Hill, Pitch Black etc) that she's unafraid to balance mainstream character parts with "lowbrow" sci-fi/horror genre treats...
Take Two: Not so crazy in love?
...a trend that continued earlier this year with her role in The Crazies (2010) remake - for which I adore her all the more for making. She plays Judy Dutton, the pregnant doctor wife of town sheriff Timothy Olyphant; he's ostensibly the lead, and Mitchell supports, but almost equal weight is given to both characters. She doesn't merely tag along as all crazy hell breaks loose when the townsfolk start foaming at the mouth. She's the medical head to Olyphant's authority brawn.
Their marriage appears wholesome, a stable marital centre, but deep down - especially in the way Mitchell plays her scenes, particularly when the two are alone - there's a troubling black spot fathomable within Judy. There are hints of more going on within their marriage, a past bad deed on his part perhaps that, through the way she infers a steadfast reluctance to not just be passive wifey, says more about their personal situation than what was first apparent. Judy's ever-so-slightly frosty air subtly underlines the exterior threat. The potential for the smalltown rot was already there even before the virus leaked.
Despite all the running and panicking that's part-and-parcel with near-apocalyptic mass hysteria, Mitchell plays the role with a sly poker face. She gamely fleshes out the role, adds a deft level of nuance unlikely in the script as written. Mitchell rarely appears as merely a victim in her roles, and in The Crazies she's trooping until the end. There's a nagging question hanging over the couple by the film's close - but it goes deeper than the threat of the virus. In her own way Mitchell provides just a touch more complexity to the film.
The casting of thirty- (Mitchell) and forty-something (Olyphant) actors in the leads is a breath of fresh air from the standard teens-in-peril of most recent horror remakes. It's a bold and interesting move. Mitchell was perfect casting: she's well versed in horror genre tropes, supplies an air of everyday plausibility, and, as ever, gives it the requisite amount of gusto.
Take Three: Wonder-less woman
Finding Neverland (2004) was a film I was less than keen on, but the one good thing I came away from the film remembering with fondness was Mitchell's performance as Mary Ansell Barrie, J.M.'s wife. The filmmakers needed a character to question and balance out all the magical, childlike whimsy going on, and Mary was the scapegoat to fit the bill.
Director Marc Forster wants the audience to share in Depp and Winslet's fanciful games, so Mary is duly posited as the antagonistic party-pooper. We're invited to view her as the - boo-hiss-boo - villain of the piece: she's frigid, unmotherly and uninterested in Barrie's sense of wonder. The couple even sleep in separate rooms: his filled with colour and adventure; her's a dark, barren void. The blame is laid at her door.
No fair, I say. I felt for her; I wasn't taken in by all the saccharine quirkiness either. The other characters sidelined her, saw her as gloomy and selfish, and it seemed the filmmakers did too: Mary is all-too-often filmed isolated and pushed to the edges of the film frame, alone and unhappy. A dramatic construct sure, but Mary unjustly took the brunt of film's magical biases.
Mitchell's work is cut out for her and she grafts overtime to make Mary a compelling presence. Her performance was understated and conveyed with praiseworthy dignity. The piecemeal compassion doled out to Mary by the end is hard-earned, but meagre. Mitchell beautifully expresses Mary's last-minute vindication with acute skill.
Of course most of the awards acclaim centred on Depp, Winslet and Highmore but - in an echo of the film's plot - Mitchell was unfairly left out in the prize-giving (only receiving a token joint nomination from SAG). Boo-hiss-boo indeed. For me, the film's few successes lay in Mitchell's hands. Call me a whimsy denier, but I was with Mary all the way.