Sunday, June 20, 2010

Take Three: Miranda Richardson

Craig here with the next Take Three.

This week: Miranda Richardson

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.

Damage control: Richardson as Ingrid Fleming

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.

The spying game: Miranda Richardson as Jude

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.

Armed and devious: Jude threatens Fergus in The Crying Game

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).

3 Women: Mrs. Cleg, Yvonne and Mrs. Wilkinson

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.

Gentlemen prefer blondes: Richardson as Yvonne (or not) in Spider

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?


Hayden said...

Love Damage! I thought Irons was just as brilliant if not as flashy. Gotta love the work actors their age were doing in the 90's before the resurrection of Meryl Streep, sequels, and biopics swooped in to redraw a more boring (American) cinematic landscape.

Hayden said...

Not that Damage was an American film, per se. I digress.


I love all three of those performances, particularly Spider which was so badly handled in distribution. It should have easily snagged her trophies of one sort or another.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

I've seen neither Spider nor The Crying Game. But Damage? I'd buy that. Out of the nominees of that year, I find myself haunted by Richardson and Redgrave most. Especially that "You should have killed yourself" line. Miranda, *you* kill *me*!

Andrew K. said...

Miranda has a knack for showing up on the sidelines and stealing the show, perfect example - Vanessa Bell. She turns up with that expressive face of hers and steals the films in her scene with Kidman (who's actually my favourite of the three leads). Her reaction to the kiss is just excellent.

And speaking of stealing scenes, wasn't she best thing in The Goblet of Fire?

/3rtfu11 said...

Gotta love the work actors their age were doing in the 90's before the resurrection of Meryl Streep, sequels, and biopics swooped in to redraw a more boring (American) cinematic landscape.

Are you saying Meryl Streep is boring? Can we be friends?

Alex said...

I love her in all 3 of those performances! Glad to see the under-appreciated SPIDER in the mix there.

Hayden now has me thinking what Meryl would've done with the role/scene...

Whoopee for nailing the Comment du Jour! :)

Alex said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

Miranda Richardson. Damn fine choice, sir. And I'm so happy you "cheated" by citing her triple for Spider. :)

If I were to add, I believe her American counterpart would be Anjelica Houston. Plus they both rock in roles with similar hairstyles (Miranda in The Crying Game and Anjelica in The Witches).

mrripley said...

The moment in Damage for me is the different ways she says martin then collapses and her nude scene the next morning.

Then I remeber her dialling that type of acting too highly in Tom and Viv.

MRRIPLEY said...

I noticed on veriuos websites no oe is fond of her 94 nominated actress perf i ntom and viv either,what say you nat!


i have never seen Tom & Viv.

Borg said...

It's fantastic to read such a well-written and appreciative article about one of the greatest actresses working today, so thanks for that!

I think part of the problem with the underappreciation of 'Tom & Viv' nom is the fact many people just plain havn't seen it, or saw it so long away that they have forgotten how terrific she was. In my opinion, she was a thoroughly deserving nominee, and it certainly ranks among her best performances.

verninino said...

Miranda's bitches have such desperately tender humanity, my heart breaks to recall each and every one of these.

She lends such gravity to these films that it's shameful to think of them as supporting roles.

Brilliant work Craig.

Craig Bloomfield said...

Jaded - That's a good point, about Anjelica Huston. They have quite similar career paths. I'd love to write about Huston for Take Three; The Witches would definitely be one of them - and The Grifters, too. (I'll have to decide if she's more character actress then lead though...) And the Spider cheat was a must - it fit the template so well!

Borg - Thank YOU for reading! Glad you enjoyed it... I did consider Tom & Viv, but as it was a lead (and the brief is essentially to stay supporting where possible) I went for The Crying Game instead. I think you're right about it though. I saw it around about '96 and only then. It's really undervalued, and she's fantastic in it.

Verninino - watching her scenes in Damage again for this I noticed just how scarily good she was. Her character was indeed heartbreaking. She really has the solid supporting role covered. I wish more directors made good use of her nowadays. Thanks!

bcarter3 said...

So glad you mentioned her wonderful portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I as a homicidal teenybopper airhead in the "Blackadder" series! She was perfect.

Tina said...

I just thought I'd mention that it looks like Miranda is going to have something of a career surge in the next year (touch wood) with a lead in AMC's new series, 'Rubicon', a plum supporting role in the film 'Made in Dagenham' (trailer here:, and a cameo in the next 'Harry Potter' film.

/3rtfu11 said...

I'll have to decide if she's more character actress then lead though

Craig, Huston said she’s drawn to Character parts and as far as I know The Grifters is the biggest thing she’s done where she’s lead. Of course she was above the title in The Addams Family films but those were ensemble showcases for Raul Julia and Christina Ricci.

Craig Bloomfield said...

/3rtfu11 - after writing that I thought, Ah may as well do Huston anyway. And now this seals it, cheers - expect her in the future on Take Three.

The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

Craig, I hope you have room to tackle Anjelica's work in her father's last film, The Dead. Have been eternally curious about that in particular. Is she supporting, is she lead, did she miss out on a 2nd Oscar nom for a film her dad directed because of the confusion?

Craig Bloomfield said...

Jaded - When I do Anjelica - and it's a must, really - I'll inc. The Dead which, as ya say, is a great film. She's amazing in it.

Anonymous said...

Miranda Richardson, I'd say the most talented actor ever. She always steals the show. Ingrid, she was fabulous and made the whole film worth watching, Lady Van Tassel, so deliciously evil and a prime example of showing Miranda stealing the show with a small part, and the bloody kiss was to die for, Queenie, both hillarious and psychotic, but one role which I really love is that of Queen Mab, she was fantastic as Mab and really showed the struggle of good and evil fighting within the character mixed in with the desperate need to survive. Excellent choice to write about my friend.

Stepho said...

Miranda Richardson is an amazing actress that I will forever be in awe of. Beautiful pictures!!