An early FYC plea for Rachel Weisz

Posted by · 7:30 pm · March 22nd, 2012

First off, apologies for the slow business around here this week. As some of you may know, Kris is on leave, occupied with the small matter of his wedding on Saturday. And while I’m supposed to be keeping things on track in his absence, I’ve been hit by a mystery illness this week that hasn’t done much for my posting efficiency. Unfortunate timing on my part, but things are looking up — do bear with me.

One item I’ve been meaning to write that got unduly waylaid this week is a review of Terence Davies’ “The Deep Blue Sea,” which I saw at the London Film Festival last October and has been waltzing in and out of my mind ever since. It finally lands in US theaters tomorrow, and while I’m still hoping to finish an appraisal of the film as a whole — which, as you’d expect from as rigorously mannered a stylist as Davies, is as fascinating in the ways it doesn’t quite coalesce as in the instances it quite gloriously does — I’d like to pre-empt that discussion with an unqualified endorsement of its standout feature: the astonishing lead performance of Rachel Weisz.

Academy Award contenders for Best Actress don’t tend to be minted as early as March: just ask Juliette Binoche or Mia Wasikowska, both more than worthy of awards consideration last year and long forgotten by the time critics started throwing trophies at winter babies like Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams. They are even less likely to resurface when steered by nobly humble boutique distributors like Music Box Films — an outfit more regularly associated with foreign-language fare that took advantage of the Davies film’s cool Toronto buzz to snap up an unusually starry title for their collection.

But damn it, if we don’t even bother to hope, the underdogs never get their due — and Weisz’s work in “The Deep Blue Sea” needs and deserves all the naïve hope it can muster. By the normal rules of play in such matters, when an Oscar-winning actor excels themselves in a polished, literate prestige piece, another Oscar campaign is par for the course — and as Hester Collyer, a brittle trophy wife emotionally paralyzed by her own infidelity in Davies’ meticulous adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 stage play, Weisz doesn’t so much excel herself as define herself as the actress we’ve long either believed or wished her to be.

For those who have been full-fledged advocates of her heavyweight status since (or even before) her 2005 red-carpet run for “The Constant Gardener” — where she turned from sneak-attack Golden Globe victor to Oscar dead-cert with an ease that surprises even more in retrospect than it did at the time — this is the worthy post-win close-up that she’s long merited and not quite found in the no-cigar showcases of “Agora,” “The Whistleblower” or “The Brothers Bloom.” And for those who have been enticed by, but not wholly sold on, her gifts, it’s a retroactive free pass to the thespian A-list that erases, without prejudice, sundry CV inkblots like “Fred Claus” or “Dream House.” 

I’ll confess that I’ve been in the latter camp for several years: charmed by her presence, intrigued by her potential, without ever quite seeing the whole picture that came so clearly into view for admirers of her work in “The Constant Gardener,” an intelligent, conscientious, even seductive outline of a character that, for me, never asks enough of the ambiguities the script so carefully laces around her. That admirably lissome yet effort-driven subtlety is what has distanced me ever so slightly from much of Weisz’s strongest work over the years — with her beguiling against-type daffiness in “The Brothers Bloom” a welcome interruption.

It’s all the more surprising, then, that her breakthrough — or to be more fair, perhaps, my breakthrough with her — should arrive in a film that is itself occasionally hampered by its calculated delicacy. Brittle, heightened and hushed even by Davies’ porcelain standards, “The Deep Blue Sea” seems ideally tailored for the passively lovely Weisz we know, so it’s first disorienting, then thrilling, to find the actress throwing herself at Rattigan’s upright words with such curdled, wounded abandon: torn between two men and two lives, both rapidly receding into her past, her Hester is tangily irrational, touchingly self-deceiving and thoroughly unstudied, even if Davies’ woozily besotted camera can’t turn its gaze from her for a second.

Decked out in a dazzling array of 1950s oil-pastel gowns, the actress has never looked this pristine, this honest-to-God-movie-star-beautiful; conversely, she’s never appeared this internally stained, this sincerely shattered. It’s not reaching too far to say Vivien Leigh comes to mind — both physically and otherwise — and not merely because Leigh played Hester in Anatole Litvak’s generally buried 1955 screen adaptation of Rattigan’s play.

There’s something of Leigh’s glinting-eyed, edge-of-destruction composure here, and it’s a razored romantic register in which we’re not that used to seeing actresses of Weisz’s generation playing. Coincidentally, she took on another Leigh-colonized property, Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” on the London stage a couple of years ago to great, and reasonably merited, acclaim — and still this feels a ferocious revelation.

Lest this read like hyperbole, I’ve encountered a number of colleagues (both inside and outside of the existing Weisz fan club) who feel similarly strongly about this performance — even, or perhaps especially, if they don’t feel that strongly about the gorgeous film surrounding it. British awards voters, however, were considerably less seduced when the film opened here last November. Eyebrows were raised when the film was stunningly blanked in the British Independent Film Award nominations, even in a Best Actress category that resorted to negligible filler contenders like Rebecca Hall in “The Awakening” to round out the ballot. BAFTA voters, meanwhile, continued to neglect the talent right under their noses: Weisz was omitted from a Best Actress longlist that included Emma Stone in “The Help” and Helen Mirren in “The Debt.”

Some UK critics’ groups did their best to rectify the situation: Weisz was nominated for Best British Actress by the London Film Critics’ Circle (which I’m pleased to say I had a vote in) and the Evening Standard Awards jury. But whether due to the film’s respectful-rather-than-ecstatic reviews, inevitably muted box office and/or chamber-piece air, the career-crowning achievement of a big-league star has somehow become the kind of word-of-mouth secret usually circulated about far less celebrated names. It’s only March, I know. But you can fix this, America.     

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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