Through a study of her performances in Becoming Jane, Alice in Wonderland and Les Misérables, let us take a moment to pay tribute to the work and art of a great actress gifted with versatility, subtlety and a deep understanding of human nature that has characterised each of her roles and contributed vastly to their brilliance.
Hathaway delivers a fiercely mature yet disarming performance as a young Jane Austen in her formative years. Delightfully, uproariously and sometimes exasperatingly raw in the shining wit, laughter and use of the extended sentence that she would later refine and master in her novels, Hathaway’s spirited, passionate and highly intelligent Jane is a moving vision both of greatness in the making and of a perfectly normal, innocent family girl experiencing poverty; sibling love; the whirlwind of first love; the anguish of losing it and the despair of living in a society that doesn’t even recognise a woman’s right to have a mind, let alone to write novels or inherit property. She goes all the way to hell and back and never fails to make us share both her helplessness or the respite that she finds in the sense of ‘rightness’ that possesses her each time she picks up a pen. She loses far too much for a person her age, and though what she experiences resonates far into her future, we’re somehow left feeling that we’ve witnessed a life well-lived. It is an extraordinary performance that feels intensely personal, and that makes the audience reach out towards it in recognition.
Alice in Wonderland
Largely underrated and almost universally misunderstood, Hathaway’s performance as Mirana of Marmoreal, aka The White Queen, is a masterpiece of blackened, Burtonesque shadow hiding amidst folds of blinding, incandescent light and crisp white satin. Mirana’s idiosyncratic hushed voice, fairy-like movements and hand gestures, and infinitely obliging, sweet and sage-like temperament conceal a Daenerys Targaryen-like obsession and selfishness when it comes to her claim to the throne, as well as a disturbing love of the grotesque and a pitiless cruelty.
All this is epitomised by the character’s now-famous smile that imbeciles most people simply interpret as bad acting because they can’t see that it’s meant to look disturbing: it’s sweetness mixed with something horrible that you can’t quite put your finger on, because searching further, and finding that Wonderland may have replaced one megalomaniac with another, is too dreadful to contemplate. Hathaway’s performance is immensely complex, subtle and multi-faceted, and represents a brilliant, chilling study of how darkness, true darkness, is omnipresent and can often be found in the unlikeliest of people.
A performance set at an often unbearably high emotional pitch, Hathaway’s Fantine represents a meteoric fall from being a young, single mother attempting to make ends meet and take care of her child, to becoming a miserable, utterly downtrodden shell of a human being fighting desperately to ensure that the last, dwindling flame of life within her, her love for her daughter, doesn’t go out. She inhabits a world of all-encompassing psychological horror and numbness that runs so deeply she can barely cry; a world exemplified by the question ‘Don’t they know they’re making love to one already dead?’ Yet at the same time, she’s running on a kind of adrenaline of despair that makes imminent madness lurk constantly and violently in her eyes. By the time she’s rescued by Hugh Jackman’s Valjean, it’s already too late: her daughter appears to her in angelic hallucinations, which, when she’s called back to reality, make her reach out for the light with a near-violent desperation. Oscar aside, it is the supreme achievement of an actress at the very top of her game who has not peaked too soon, and who can therefore only get better in the future.