Yes we’ve all been blown away by Heath Ledger as the joker, De Niro’s crazy method acting, Johnny Depp’s many colourful characters and Meryl Streeps exploding emotion.
But when an actor simply appears in plain clothes, utters a plain line, glances a plain glance, yet conveys such complexity of emotion – this is the true power of acting.
I write this because I have just experienced the credits roll up in silence after the shocking end to Irish masterpiece, Calvary (2014). It is hard to explain what makes Brendan Gleeson’s performance so mind-blowingly phenomenal, since most of his lines are spoken in the same calm tone with the same neutral face and there never reaches a dramatic emotional climax.
A complex character indeed, Gleeson plays a Catholic priest who carries the weight of a criminal. He is a good man, pure to the heart, but his lack of naivety allows him to see the world in its true evil and not glorify any part of it. He always does what he knows is right yet is not afraid to break appearances and expectations that society has bound on him, for he knows that true good must go beyond the superficial.
There is a depth to his character like no other – he has not simply turned to God to escape misfortune of reality, nor has he been raised ignorant to any possibility other than God. In fact, interestingly enough, his personal faith is hardly referred to in the film at all. He understands the world, its people, and its needs. His religion is but a symbol – it is the values of God, not the belief in His existence, that count.
How do I know this? While there are hints in the plot and the dialogue, there are no monologues, no climactic outbursts. The real truth lies behind the eyes of an old and suffering man who looks at people as if he understands their pain yet his expression does not noticeably change. A man whose morals are engraved into the lines on his face and whose sincerity is carried in the depth of his voice.
‘I’ve already said them’. How to achieve a look of a dying man who with his final words both realises his fate and forgives it at the same time.
This is the kind of performance that cannot be awarded with a little gold trophy. It is so effortless, so authentic that I’m not even sure its acting at all. Gleeson simply became the Father for an hour and forty minutes and told us a complex moral story that reached the most delicate valves of our hearts.
Tom Hank’s ‘WILSON’ sequence or the climax scene of Eddie Redmayne’s physical deterioration as Stephen Hawking may encourage us to stand up and applaud with tears streaming down our faces. But one scene of Gleeson’s performance will not. Because while watching we are not consciously aware of his acting. We are not ‘wowed’ by his performance because he is not the actor, he is the priest. It is only afterwards when we are left struck by the film, and only in context of the themes and meaning of the work. Gleeson’s portrayal of the complex man is equally powerful, if not more, since it provokes thought and not only emotion.
Their similar appearances aside, his performance somewhat mirrors that of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Most Wanted Man. The fact that you understand and can see into the life of a character that has not told his life story. They carry the experiences of their existence on their faces and in their speech.
Other great subtle performances include Clive Owen in Children of Men, his ordinary Britishness and reluctant heroism works perfectly against such a dramatic plot, bringing this futuristic film to a extremely realistic level. Bill Murray in Lost in Translation alongside a young and talented Scarlet Johansson speaks volumes while there is little dialogue at all. Lastly, Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue is the warmest Colour at just 19 carried the film like a trooper. A lighthearted rumour suggested Adele had been cast because of her eating habits. Joking aside, her unapologetic lack of glamour as she shovels her food like we all do off camera and hangs her mouth slightly open makes her so natural. And even though the dramatic break up scene is not subtle or without tears and screams, the improvisation allows for raw emotion that is believable beyond belief.
I’m not saying that more extravagant performances are any less worthy of recognition. Noomi Rapace and Marion Cotillard embody their characters so intensely that they risk losing themselves along the way. Jack Nicholson makes us laugh and breaks our heart together in One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest. Tom Hardy and Edward Norton’s versatility is incredible from playing skinny office workers to super strength villains (in both cases).
I simply say that the 10 second clip of acting shown by each contender at the Oscars ceremony is not truly representative of an actor’s job. Their job is to make you believe that they are the character, not that they are an incredible actor. Do not underestimate the power of subtlety in acting and how the most subtle of expressions can provoke the most powerful of responses.