3 Great Performances: A Tribute to Anne Hathaway

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.

Becoming Jane

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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

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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.

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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.

Les Misérables

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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.

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Unearthly: Daniel Day-Lewis mesmerises in ‘Lincoln’.

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Lincoln is an incomprehensibly fast three hours to sit through. Often more like a play than a film, much of the action takes place in a freezing indoor world of murky grey and black hues; the outside world, and history, constantly threatening to come bursting in through the windows. This darkness makes the film’s more luminous moments all the more beautiful and, perhaps intentionally, leads us to search for sources of light in the outstanding supporting cast, and of course, in Lincoln himself, played by the great Daniel-Day Lewis.

The film details President Lincoln’s efforts to introduce the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, an action that will put an end to the American Civil War (thus delighting many people) while simultaneously ending the institution of slavery (thus annoying many people). Amidst howls of indignation and accusations of underhandedness and dictatorship in both the political and military arenas, a somewhat mad scramble is set in motion to attain sufficient support before the motion is put to the vote. Though the film is fiercely and very intelligently political, a whole host of other dramas take place both at and around its political center, both in Lincoln’s life and in the lives of those that live both in his light and in his shadow. These dramas remind you that all this noise is really about whether or not another person’s humanity can, or even should, be recognised; about who can be free, who can’t, and why, not just in terms of slavery, but in terms of war and in terms of home; everyday life. It’s not just the story of the United States, but the story of all of us, and this is a big part of the film’s intrinsic value.

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The power of Daniel Day-Lewis’ half-human, half-angelic presence in the title role honestly defies description, but I will try my best. His presence in a scene creates an invisible shifting in atmosphere like the effect of a slight breeze in a closed room. He speaks in a small, hushed and ravaged voice that somehow resonates right down to your bones. You stare for hours at his ethereal, emaciated form and beautiful face, and find such kindness, pain and glorious humanity staring back at you. You worry that he’s going to fall over and smash. You listen, charmed and enthralled in spite of yourself, to his digressive storytelling, literary references and constant quoting of Shakespeare, spellbound by the places they take him. You smile at his unforced ease in engaging with people from both the ‘wrong’ and the ‘right’ sides of the tracks with equal respect. Eventually, you realise that the principal emotion he inspires is affection, which is an astonishing and rather rare thing to inspire in a film audience nowadays. In the film’s featurette, Day-Lewis says something to the effect of him never having loved another, non-living human being as much as Abraham Lincoln. This love for the character is astoundingly contagious, and, when it comes to Lincoln’s assassination, it puts the audience into the position of understanding, on as deep a level as something like a film can take you, what a catastrophe his loss must have been for so many people. Day-Lewis’ performance amounts to three hours of acting genius: subtle, nuanced and incredibly powerful.

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Steven Spielberg happily hasn’t made the mistake of casting a load of ninnies in supporting roles that you forget about the minute they’re off-screen (and often when they’re on-screen, too). His fine supporting cast is distinctive and commanding, most notably Tommy Lee Jones as the formidable Republican Radical leader Thaddeus Stevens, a fiercely opinionated abolitionist who grabs the audience’s attention by the scruff of the neck and whose intense command of voice and facial expression makes sure your attention stays with him long after he’s let you go. Further excellent performances by David Strathairn as long-suffering Secretary of State William Seward and by Lee Pace as Fernando Wood. Poor Sally Field doesn’t get much time to shine as First Lady Mary Lincoln, but keep a sharp eye-out for her and her husband’s heart-rending argument about the death of their son; an intensely emotive scene that brings both actors out in all the dazzling complexity of their characters.

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The only complaint I have to make of the film is, oddly, its beginning and its ending. Both seem rather rushed, disjointed and out of touch with the rest of the film, particularly the ending. The Thirteenth Amendment is passed; everyone is thrilled; Lincoln asks the Confederacy to surrender and utters the beautiful line ‘Shall we stop this bleeding?’ Then, suddenly, we’re rushed through to Lincoln’s assassination (which we don’t see take place) like Garfield to a plate of lasagna. It leaves you blinking in amazement and wondering confusedly how you got there in the first place. Personally, I don’t think dealing with the assassination is necessary at all: the audience knows it’s going to happen; its influence is there even if it isn’t shown. End with ‘Shall we stop this bleeding?’ It’s poignant. It takes you somewhere. It gives you hope. Or, if the assassination is, for some reason, a big part of the director’s vision, then start with it, tell the story in flashback, and bring things full circle. Don’t just dump the audience into it! It turns the end of the film into a bit of an anticlimax.

Otherwise, beautiful. The decision to cut down on huge, expensive battle scenes and to bring the drama of the civil war and of slavery into cluttered drawing rooms gives the exquisite cast ample opportunity to make the drama vividly real and for the audience to experience the actions and feelings of the characters in a very personal way.

The People’s Musical: A Review of Les Misérables

1682135-poster-1960-tom-hooper-on-how-he-made-his-dream-of-les-miserables-come-to-lifeIn a recent red carpet interview, Anne Hathaway referred to Les Misérables as ‘the people’s musical’, and nothing proves the sensitivity and truth of that insight more than the landscape of this extraordinary film, in which crowds of the poor and the desperate, reduced to a sea of colour and clawing hands, push ever closer against the windows and carriages of ‘the righteous’, the misery of their lives staining the streets of Paris grey, and eventually, red. It’s against this vivid background that a truly exquisite cast evokes the intense, personal and human drama behind that raging storm. The result is perfection itself.

With a cast this good, this film could have been done in an empty warehouse and still have won a ton of Oscars. What’s extraordinary is that the actors aren’t just individually brilliant; they’re brilliant together. By that, I mean that they ‘fit’ together, the dynamics and the relationships between each of them causing a number of intensely moving ‘bells’ to be rung in the audience’s head throughout the film. When Hugh Jackman’s Valjean picks up Anne Hathaway’s half-dead Fantine from where she’s about to be arrested as a prostitute and carries her away to hospital, her head rests gently against his shoulder, and it feels like it belongs there. When Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) first catch sight of each other, you know, immediately, that each is the other’s destiny. That’s what I mean. Then there’s the ability of each actor to sing live in a medium that picks up every line in your face and tremor in your voice, and to sustain such remarkable characterisation while singing in long takes for hours on end. This is the best ensemble cast that I’ve seen for a very long time: brilliant together, brilliant alone.

lesmis-1200For me, Hugh Jackman was never the obvious choice for Valjean apart from his fortunate possession of a beautiful singing voice. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong in my entire life. When he sings, he seems to speak without actually doing so; you are conscious that this is a human voice talking to you; his face is exquisite, his tiniest changes in expression speaking volumes; his eyes can be wild, like those of a hunted man, but also compassionate and unspeakably tender. You seem to evolve with him and feel with him as he longs, tentatively, for any kind of human connection. The addition of Suddenly, a new song for Valjean that describes his feelings after deciding to raise Cosette as his own, fits so naturally into both his character and the musical that only people who know Les Miz well will notice that it’s new at all. Jackman’s performance in those five minutes is more than sufficient to win him an Academy Award and ensure that people will still be remembering this role long after he’s dead: I’d also be extremely surprised if Suddenly isn’t immediately absorbed into Les Miz canon and becomes yet another showstopper right alongside I Dreamed A Dream and One Day More.

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Anne Hathaway has received the most publicity over her role in this film, and the hype is entirely justified. Fantine’s life truly is a wreck: selling her body in order to feed her daughter, Cosette being the only light in her life, a light that she clings to desperately and obsessively to keep off the approaching cloud of insanity that we see in her eyes and hear in her voice. Hathaway’s performance is vividly psychological and often disturbing, oscillating between suicidal depression and gleeful, childlike bliss when thinking of her child. Her relief and her gratitude at Valjean’s willingness to help her are sincere and heartfelt enough to make you weep. Her interpretation of I Dreamed A Dream is filmed almost entirely in close up, her ravaged face resembling a map of the grief that she expresses, and our admiration at her ability to sustain such emotion with a camera right in her face increasing by the second. Eddie Redmayne made a very astute observation in the featurette about how this is the kind of song that everyone knows from the cradle, but when Anne sings it, it feels like you’re listening to the words for the first time. This originality defines her entire performance. Morbid and incandescent, she completely reinterprets Fantine’s character, and her reappearance in the film’s final scene, when she’s the last person you expect to see, makes you lose what little composure you have left.

In essence, Russell Crowe is the perfect Javert: charismatic, menacing, repressed, seething with passion. However, despite the sheer power that his presence commands on screen, when it comes to singing, he is rather uncomfortable. While perfectly able to sing on the note, he is lamentably incapable of sustaining it, which causes some of the film’s greatest moments, that are his by right, to suffer enormously. Javert’s showstopper, Stars, is a simultaneously haunting and electrifying piece of music, and director Tom Hooper heightens its potential by setting it on the parapet of a building directly opposite Notre Dame. With those looming towers and blazing stars in the background, you’d hardly expect an actor of Crowe’s calibre to make a hash of it, but regrettably, he does, his notes dissolving and fading into obscurity. A crying, crying shame.

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Then there’s Eddie Redmayne. As anyone who has followed his career would know, this is an actor of tremendous artistry, and his extraordinary performances in The Pillars of the Earth and Tess of the D’Urbervilles have certainly merited a Hollywood breakout before now (and no, My Week with Marilyn does NOT count: everyone was looking at Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh). After this, he is unlikely to go anywhere but up. In the stage musical, Marius is a mildly annoying, two-dimensional lover who spends most of his time moping around and trying to be dashing. Redmayne brilliantly reinterprets the character torn between his political ideals and the woman he loves with intensely emotional acting, a deeply expressive face and an exquisite singing voice that are, frankly, mesmerising. I’ve rarely seen such a heartfelt expression of grief and loss as his Empty Chairs and Empty Tables, where Marius contemplates the ruined empty shell of the café where he and his friends, now all dead, ‘talked of revolution.’ He acts with the maturity, and experience, of somebody twice his age. What irritates me intensely is that this is the kind of performance that should be winning oodles of awards but isn’t even getting nominated. Let’s hope that casting directors are more intelligent than the Academy.

Another immensely strong point of the film is the revitalising of Paris as a great filmmaking city without a single shot of the bloody Eiffel Tower. Despite the fact that none of it was filmed in Paris at all, many of the truly great, personal moments of each of the characters, particularly Javert, are filmed against a sweeping, majestic backdrop of old Paris that takes their personal drama to enormous heights and flawlessly captures how the drama of the individual may either be reflected in or swallowed up by the landscape of that great city, a very nineteenth century concept that resonates all the way through to the twenty-first. All this is supported by a deeply devoted and professional chorus line capable of coming to vivid life as the sweepings of the street, or as serving as a disembodied jubilant or despairing accompaniment to the lives of the characters.

Director Tom Hooper has assembled a cast of people, known and unknown, who are at the very top of their game, each character down to the last extra perfectly cast with the meticulous obsessiveness of a casting director for the BBC. He has taken an old and beloved musical and completely reinvented it, the medium of film increasing its pathos and relevance today. It’s a sprawling, original and moving masterpiece that gives some of the musical’s most well-known lines new significance and takes us to new places, both beautiful and disturbing.