Career Spotlight: Jonathan Pryce

Looking back at the career of a great English actor…

Now that I’ve written quite a bit on this blog, I’ve gotten tired of doing film reviews, especially seeing as I’ve mostly been reviewing things I like. So, in the name of diversity I thought it would a be a welcome change of pace to introduce a new segment. This is a section which will look at prolific actors and actresses that have been in a lot of films and television, but not usually as the starring role. They are brilliantly talented but often play side characters or supporting roles, so you may well recognise them, but not know their names. I think it’s high time these people got a bit more appreciation, so here goes…

To begin this occasional segment, I thought I would look at the long career of Jonathon Pryce, an English actor most famous for being a bond villain and Governor Swan from Pirates of the Caribbean. I’m going to go over some of the highlights of his filmography, and how well I think he does in the various roles. Obviously, I don’t intend to look at every film he has been in, and so I’m going to pick four films from various points in his filmography which represent the range of his ability. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the acting career of that guy you probably sort-of know from Pirates of the Caribbean.

Jonathon Pryce has been active since the mid 70’s in both theatre and films. From ’76 to ’83 he had supporting roles for four feature films, three of which were relatively small independent projects. It wasn’t until 1983 that he got his first starring role in a feature film for Something Wicked this Way Comes, based on the book of the same name by Ray Bradbury. This is a strange film, with some great atmosphere but big pacing problems and some questionable child actors. However, I’m not reviewing the film, I’m only interested in Pryce’s performance. He plays the sinister Mr Dark, who despite not having a very subtle name, is a deliciously cruel character and a highlight of the film. Pryce gives him just the right level of enjoyment in what he is doing, without making him cartoonish or silly. He has oodles of charm and charisma, and yet you never forget he is the villain; he’s intimidating without needing bravado.

The character of Dark is a skilled manipulator, using people’s desires against them, and Pryce is excellent at playing the tempter, seeming reasonable, yet malevolent. For example, there is a brilliant scene late into the movie in which Dark offers Charlie Holloway, the main character’s father, to make him young again. The way in which Pryce paces his speech, and the intensity of his words is riveting. This is the first example of how much presence and authority Pryce can command with just his voice and his eyes. His intense stare, almost unhinged looking and his powerful, crisp voice both give his characters weight and gravitas. We can’t help but pay rapt attention whenever he is on screen. In my opinion, it is worth seeing this film just to get a clear example of how good Jonathon Pryce is at playing the villain.

Just two years later, however we get a very different character for Pryce to portray. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) is, according to Pryce himself, a personal career highlight. It showcases his talent for a restrained performance. Even in his most silly roles, Pryce knows just how to sell his character, by keeping his performance under tight control. He knows exactly when to let loose and when to rein it in, and this creates a, if not completely realistic, certainly believable character. In particular in a film as bizarre and ridiculous as one made by Gilliam, Pryce shines as the put-upon straight man, making the outrageous world he lives in seem stranger by contrast. Brazil is such as interesting and funny film that I may come back to it at some point, but for now let’s focus on Pryce’s role.

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As Sam Lowry, he is swept up in an accidental conspiracy leading to him running from an Orwellian government. The key difference between a film like this and 1984, is that the evil government is more incompetent and overrun by bureaucracy than malice. In fact, the inciting incident of the film is a misfiling leading to the wrong person being arrested for terrorism. Within this incompetent and infuriating world, the character of Lowry stands out because he is normal. Pryce gives him enough frustration at the world around him, enough longing to be elsewhere so that the audience can easily empathise. We’ve all been in a less severe version of his situation, held up by paperwork or screwed over by a mistake. It’s strange to see Pryce play the hero of a story, but as the film is about a struggle against overwhelming red tape, it makes sense that a less well known, or traditionally good-looking actor would fit the role better. He brings his quiet intensity to Lowry, making him desperate to live out his daydream of excitement and romance. I can’t say much more without spoiling this film, and believe me, it’s one you want to watch without spoilers. Let’s move on.

The penultimate film I’m going to look at is one much later in Pryce’s filmography, from 2003. In Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl Jonathon plays Governor Swan, Elisabeth’s ambitious father. This film gives a good example of his comedic chops, as he plays a more humorous character, but not quite as over the top as Jack Sparrow. While Johnny Depp gives a thoroughly entertaining go as the lead, his performance is a little too disconnected from reality, and sometimes that can detract from the stakes. Pryce reacts to the world around him in a naturalistic way, which means that when the world around him is ludicrous and fantastical, it produces a realistic, and often hilarious reaction. For most of the film, Pryce plays governor Swan as a concerned father, who wishes her wellbeing but also wants her to choose the life he plans for her. He portrays this with genuine warmth and feeling, but the best parts of his role are when he comes into contact with the supernatural.

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Case in point, when he is trapped on a ship being invaded by Zombie pirates, he does the very human thing and locks himself in the cabin, accidentally cutting off a pirate’s hand, which then carries on moving on its own. The scene is very funny mostly because of Pryce’s great comic timing, but also his very real, human reaction. Upon realising the hand is still alive, he almost vomits, and his struggle to fight this one hand, whilst outside a battle against zombie pirate’s rages, is a great contrast. Pryce’s expression when he traps the hand in a cabinet, and the cabinet starts shuddering is priceless (I apologise for the pun, I couldn’t resist). The crowning moment is when he walks outside after the curse has been lifted and joyfully squares up to the already defeated pirates. In a film filled with quirky pirates and undead skeleton people, it’s nice to contrast it with some normal characters and Pryce can do both types very well.

So far, we’ve seen Pryce as the villain, the hero and the light comic relief, but I would like now to take a look at a more morally grey character Pryce has played. To complete this segment, I’m going to look at a very recent performance in Game of Thrones. In Game of Thrones, Pryce plays a religious leader called the High Sparrow. This is one the most nuanced performance I’ve seen from him and it perfectly demonstrates why he is such a talented actor. He fits so naturally into the character, it’s hard to see him as an actor. In the fifth and sixth season on Game of Thrones Pryce plays a religious leader named the High Sparrow, who rises quickly to power, and then starts to take over as the de-facto leader of King’s Landing. He is a humble seeming character, wearing only ragged robes and no shoes, and puts on a great show of helping the unfortunate. While he may or may not actually care about the plight of the poor, his real goal is to amass power, and he sees his religious followers and the poor masses as tools to complete this goal. Pryce shows a very subtle man, who presents a humble grandfatherly exterior, but reveals moments of cunning and hardness.

A perfect scene to show this is when Jaime Lannister confronts him in the Sept of Baelor. At first, the Sparrow plays the defenceless old man who just wants to see justice done. He uses humility as a weapon to disarm his enemies. When it doesn’t work on Jaime, he drops the act and lets his true character out, explicitly threatening him and demonstrating just how many are on his side. Pryce is brilliantly subtle in how he lets his facial cues and body language convey the shift in personas, as he drops the humble act. His measured and calm responses never change, but his tone alters dramatically. He starts the conversation light and kindly, and ends with a serious and completely sincere tone, safe in the knowledge that Jaime won’t kill him. Only an actor of the same calibre as Jonathan Pryce, someone like Anthony Hopkins for instance, could put that many layers into a performance, and still make it seem natural. It is a masterfully done role.

Hopefully during the course of this admittedly rather long post I’ve managed to highlight the skill in acting Jonathan Pryce possesses and how overlooked he can be. Now that I have pointed out some of his best and most interesting roles I hope that you’ll be inspired to check an actor who deserves much more attention and praise.

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Strike hits the mark…

The new BBC detective show that lives up to the books…

Oh boy, have I been looking forward to this series. The Cormoran Strike book series have been some of the most entertaining and grounded detective stories I’ve read in a good while. The stories are rooted in realism, the characters are down to earth and believable, and the prose is fantastic, which is to be expected coming from J.K. Rowling (although she writes under the name Robert Galbraith). Having really enjoyed the books I was, of course overjoyed to hear that a TV series was being commissioned, and slightly nervous. Quite often having read the source material can get in the way of enjoying the film/TV version; I struggle to get as much fun from the Harry Potter films because the books are so much more detailed. However, a TV series can give us more detail and depth as a longer length is allowed for the story, and for a book series set in modern day London, the budget needn’t be as high. Now that I’ve seen the show, I can confirm that it is damn good!

The TV show adapts the first two books in the series, so to be consistent I’m going to review the first part of the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling as a complete story. The series, written by Ben Richards and directed by Michael Keillor serves as an introduction to the characters, but also manages to have a very gripping mystery centred around the fashion industry. As such there is a lot of set up, but it is dealt with in a very natural way (for the most part). The military background of Strike is worked naturally into the story, through the new temporary secretary Robin. As she is first meeting and working for him, we find out about his past when she does.

The only slightly clunky moments of exposition are when Strike talks to a concierge and brings up his missing leg, saying “would you like to see?”. The fact he is missing a leg probably could have been brought up a bit more subtly, rather than having the character actually point it out. Apart from a few moments like this however, the story is very naturalistic. We spend a good amount of time watching Strike try to get his life back together after a nasty breakup, camping in his office, getting a sleeping bag; in fact, the only reason he even takes the case is that he is desperate for cash.

The actual mystery is engaging and unpredictable. If I hadn’t read the books I probably wouldn’t have guessed who was the murderer and the only real problem I have is that many of the clues and interviews were cut down quite a bit from in the book. The issue with this is that it makes it harder for the audience to have a fair chance of guessing who the culprit is, meaning that we feel less rewarded when it is actually revealed. However, the story is adapted very well from Rowling by Ben Richards, and thanks the three-hour runtime, he manages to give the story room to breathe. The book has a slow pace, showing us the mundane side of detective work, whilst focusing on building character, and the Show does the same.

A downside of the show is that the cinematography didn’t particularly stand out. There were a few really nice shots but for the most part the composition was quite standard. This is a realistic show, but it could take a few notes from Sherlock, which despite its flaws is shot beautifully and takes advantage of the London setting. This isn’t a deal breaker, but it does make the show a little less interesting to look at. What helps however, is the stellar editing. The pacing is kept smooth thanks to very seamless cuts, and whoever had the idea to only show the scene directly before the murder, and then film shots of the interior of the apartment should be commended. The scene then transitions very smoothly into the exterior where a crime scene has already been set up, before we end with a shot of the body. This is a very evocative and unusual way of editing such a scene and it got me very curious to see what else they would do with it.

Finally, the performances. Tom Burke stars as the lead Cormoran Strike, and as a fan of the books, he does the character justice. He is slightly gruff and reserved, with enough hidden angst to keep us interested. He portrays a man going through a tough spot and keeping it to himself, and captures a certain casual demeanour that reflects his job as an investigator, trying not to draw attention. I particularly admire how much weight Burke has put on for the role, it adds another dimension to the character and is accurate to the books. It’s nice to have a less good looking podgy protagonist for once! Lastly, we have Robin Ellacott, played by Holliday Grainger. Grainger captures the perky optimistic Robin with aplomb, and she is a good foil to Strikes grim gruff character. The two have good chemistry, and Grainger is very good at keeping the character from being annoyingly chipper. She has a sunny, can-do attitude, but she isn’t naïve. She’s capable and fun to watch, and clearly, there’s much more about her character to explore.

So the series is an extremely enjoyable watch, even if you haven’t read the books, although if you have, you won’t be disappointed. The show is interesting, exciting and has a lot of potential. The actors give great performances, the story and pacing are superb, and it is a stellar example of how to adapt a book into a TV format. Give it a watch, and see for yourself!

Not Quite as Good as it Gets…

Looking at a film I enjoyed, but had a quite a few issues with…

Whilst perusing Netflix the other day, I was fortunate enough to come across an old rom-com from 1995 called As Good as it Gets Written and Directed by James L. Brookes. Since it starred Jack Nicholson and was about a character with OCD, which I haven’t seen in many films, I thought I would give it a try. What I discovered about this film is that it’s simultaneously really great and pretty bad. A lot of things in this film are fantastic and I really enjoy them, but there are other aspects that grate on me quite a bit, and I can’t decide which parts of the film matter more. I struggled to decide if I liked this film so much so, that I thought I would run through what it does well and what frustrates me about it.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this film was Nicholson’s performance. I have yet to see a film he has starred in where I didn’t love his character, although admittedly it is always the same character. In this he plays a cantankerous, misanthropic novelist with severe OCD and poor social skills. Nicholson brings his trademark snarky lines and bad attitude, but his portrayal of obsessive compulsive behaviour is very compelling. He manages to create a lot of sympathy whilst not playing it for laughs. What I don’t love about his character however is the racial and homophobic slurs. I know it’s a part of his character that he has to overcome and that having a flawed protagonist is more interesting, but for me it doesn’t work. The fact is that Melvin Udall is a nasty enough person to everyone around him without adding discrimination to his traits. I wouldn’t mind so much if he had a moment of character growth where he learns to overcome his prejudices, but the matter is never properly addressed. Udall simply grows to like the characters he had previously slurred. Maybe that’s enough for some, but for me it feels incomplete.

Another character who is excellent is Helen Hunt’s put-upon waitress, Carol. She is a struggling single mother, who can’t seem to find time for a love life, and can’t get good medical care for her ailing son. She serves Udall at his regular diner, and he begins to develop a respect (and later love) for her as she doesn’t take his eccentricities lying down. As Melvin says himself at one point, her character inspires him to better himself; this is a very sweet aspect of her personality. Helen Hunt does a great job portraying her strength of will and independence, as well as some very emotional moments, such as when she discovers Melvin has covered all her medical expenses. On the other hand, the character becomes very mercurial and emotionally inconsistent towards the end of the film.

Admittedly, Melvin is hard to cope with thanks to his inappropriate comments and selfish attitude, but if she doesn’t want to be with him, she shouldn’t keep agreeing to meet him. She seems unable to decide if she wants a relationship with him, and constantly gets frustrated or even angry with Melvin about his eccentricities. The problem is she doesn’t take his OCD into account enough. I may sound harsh when I say that her indecisiveness and lighting fast changes of heart are very irritating to watch. There is also a slightly creepy element to their relationship when you consider that she is a pretty 35 year old, and he is a 60 year old Jack Nicholson. There is a reason Jack is so good in the shining after all… In fact, the few scenes in which her mother interacts with Melvin are even worse, as they are clearly a similar age, making you think it would be a more appropriate romance.

Performances aside, the film has a very unpredictable story; I was unable to guess most of the plot elements, which for me is a rarity. I enjoyed watching Melvin undergo a change of character, particularly the scenes in which he takes care of his neighbour’s dog after he is hospitalised. The scenes of him slowly growing fond of the dog are hilarious and adorable, and probably enough reason to see the movie on its own. The film is very funny, I had several good belly laughs at moments, such as when Melvin snaps at a fan of his books after an increasingly horrible day. The one liners in this film are very well written, and although the writing is a little unrealistic (I’m pretty sure most people aren’t quite so melodramatic) it is a lot of fun. Greg Kinnear is very entertaining as a gay artist living next door, who struggles to be confrontational. His complicated relationship with Udall is actually more interesting and heart-warming to me than the main romance. The fact that he is a gay character who portrayed as completely normal is icing on the cake.

A visual downside of the film is that the colour is often very bright and quite odd. It detracts from the overall realistic tone, as characters wear almost comically bright colours, and shirts with two buttons done up. The colours often clash and it makes the film not much fun to look at. However, after looking through all the good things this movie has to offer, I have decided it is good after all. It has enough good things going for it that outnumber the bad elements, and at its core, it fulfils its purpose well; it is a comedy and it made me laugh. Quite a lot.

Dunkirk is the best Christopher Nolan film in years…

A return to form for Christopher Nolan…

Christopher Nolan has always been an exciting director. His films are without fail a visual treat, and his insistence on more practical effects is as refreshing as his stories are engaging. That said, as of late I have found myself growing a little cold towards Nolan’s films. That is to say, his more recent films, The Prestige and Memento are as brilliant now as they were years ago. The Dark Knight was so good that is was perhaps inevitable that The Dark Knight Rises, by virtue of coming after such a film would disappoint. After that came Interstellar, a spectacularly shot film with some great performances, and yet the story didn’t seem quite up to scratch. In particular, the fact that the film resolves itself by having the power of love overcome all just felt lazy, and no matter how you choose to phrase it that is what happened.

However, I’m happy to say that Nolan is back up to standard with Dunkirk. This is an exquisitely made war drama, that successfully showcases the confusion of conflict and the horrors that everyday people went through during the battle of Dunkirk, and although there are a few issues, overall, I thought it was a stirring experience.

First things first, the story structure. Making a war film always comes with a few problems. How do you keep your protagonist alive without making it painfully obvious that they aren’t in real danger? The solution in this case is to create a constant level of tension that only occasionally lets up. Nolan uses a pattern. The characters will manage to escape a deadly encounter, and find a sanctuary. Convinced they are safe, they and we as the audience let our guard down, and disaster will strike. This happens multiple times in the film, but rather than getting boring, it manages to keep us on our toes, wondering which characters will make it out in one piece. Hans Zimmer shines here too, he uses high pitched repetitious music to keep the tension building. Every time the music increases in pitch we grow a little more worried. Its remarkably similar to way Zimmer used high pitched music in The Dark Knight.

The film follows several different characters as they go through various fronts of the battle. Nolan does something unusual with the structure in this film. Rather than one linear narrative, we jump forward and back in time randomly depending on which character we are with, almost like Pulp Fiction. This non-linear narrative means we are not always sure when things are happening in relation to the other characters, although it becomes clearer towards the end of the film. Oddly enough this is makes the film stronger, as it creates a sense of confusion, which brings us closer to the characters. We are almost forced into their shoes, unsure of what is happening around us.

Speaking of characters, this film has quite a few to keep up with. There is an RAF pilot played by Tom Hardy, two soldiers on the beach trying to get home, played by Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles… for some reason. There is also a navy officer overseeing the disaster played by Kenneth Branagh and finally, we have an older man and his son sailing to Dunkirk, who rescues a soldier with PTSD played by Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy. All of these (yes even Harry Styles) do a fine job presenting these characters, but the stand outs to me were Mark Rylance and Fionn Whitehead. Most of the rest of the cast are good, but often don’t get enough screen time or presence to really shine (with the exception of Cillian Murphy who is always damn near perfect). Rylance does an amazing job showing the quiet patriotism this man has and his heroism in going to Dunkirk himself to pick up wounded soldiers. He represents the working men who did their bit during the war, even if they couldn’t fight themselves, and Rylance’s nuanced, yet reserved portrayal was a stand out.

The other actor who deserves a mention is Fionn Whitehead. He plays a young soldier trying desperately to get home, and one of the key aspects of his performance is his physical performance. He doesn’t have many lines in the film, but the emotion he portrays in his eyes and expressions is very genuine. The fear, desperation, and determination his situation creates is very clear on his face and I look forward to seeing him in more films in the future.

The effects as always with Christopher Nolan, were spectacular and the lack of unnecessary CG kept the realistic tone needed. However, what detracted from the tone was a complete lack of gore, which in a war film is quite noticeable. There were several points when something was exploding or on fire, and no one seemed to be hurt. One man was in the middle of a fiery explosion and he looked like he was getting a sun-burn. However, this wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, and the beautiful cinematography, especially the amazing dogfights, more than made up for it. This is an incredibly shot film with a decent story and some really emotional moments and I definitely recommend it.