Monday, 22 March 2010

Performances of the Decade (Female)

When an acclaimed actor wins an Oscar there’s always rumblings that amount to backlash of some sort. Was it the right role? The thing is my next entry has had quite a decade. Even though Oscar has only recognised her twice she has given countless excellent performances this decade and sometimes her Oscar win is just a little too underrated, or maybe I’m just atypical. Because regardless of how many times I see her other excellent work I remain convinced that she won the Oscar for her best performance.
#4 Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002)
One thing I always think about when Nicole’s name is mentioned in The Hours is her dedication. Perhaps it wasn’t particularly peculiar, but I always admire the fact that she learnt to write with her right hand just to lend authenticity to her portrayal of Woolf. I’m a big fan of Woolf now, though at the time I first saw this film I didn’t know too much about her. In retrospect I wouldn’t think I’d like Nicole that much in The Hours. Her incarnation of Woolf has nothing of what I usually like about her. She’s never been an overly technical actor, and usually what draws me to her is the charm she radiates in her performances. That is absent here. Virginia Woolf is the sort of technical piece I’d expect that other Australian to excel at; perhaps that’s why I love Nicole’s work here so much.
Even though Virginia is the most important character she has the least screen-time and Nicole begins adding nuances to her character immediately. She must. There is the slightest of pauses as she comes downstairs and Leonard asks her if she’s eaten. Eyes averted she answers: yes. It’s a lie, but not a thoughtless one. It’s more than just the nose, I truly believe in Nicole’s transformation. Her voice is the key to the role – as we’ll see later. But she doesn’t underplay the physicality either. An early scene that always convinces me of her brilliance is her confrontation with Nelly, the maid. It’s easily forgotten, but I believe it to be – arguably – one of Virginia’s most important. With that cigarette in hand Virginia is both mistress and mouse. (pictured above) She doesn’t like to lose, but she’s just a bit hesitant of reprimanding the servants. The slight glare in her eyes as she tells her: “The 12:30 train will get you to London right after one. If you return on the 2:30 you can return to Richmond soon after three. Do I miscalculate Nelly?” Nicole is giving Virginia so many layers that it’s difficult to believe we’ve only just met this woman.
Clarissa has Louis and Laura has Kitty and Virginia’s visitor is her sister Vanessa Bell. Vanessa is the most important of the three visitors – she stays the longest. At first it seems Miranda’s excellent performance is overshadowing Virginia, but we realise that Nicole is just playing it wisely. Notice, for example, the glowering stare as Vanessa says “I would have invited you to our party, but I knew you wouldn’t come.” Nicole asks, her voice brittle as ever: “How could you know that?” The tension between the two sisters – juxtaposed with their appreciation for each other – is well played and Miranda and Nicole really do work well together. But Nicole works well with all, doesn’t she? The short conversation between her and Anjelica is well played, and the profundity in the words is neither lost nor exaggerated.
In a way, The Hours is the story of three women’s days as they spiral out of control, and we notice the agitation in Virginia early. Her desperate plea to Vanessa chills always “Nessa, tell me I’m better. I do seem better.” Then, the frantic kiss which – I believe – is more a plea for attention than anything else. As Vanessa goes back to her self professed boring world that not even Virginia can envy Nicole says it so sadly “But I do.” It’s all she wants really – to have that normalcy. The train station scene has become a given as to the archetypal scene for Nicole – and it is good. I’d like to mention, as an aside, that Stephen Dillane really shines with little here. It’s the moment uncharacteristic of the Virginia we’ve seen thus far but Nicole’s anxiety is palpable. “You cannot find piece by avoiding life.” She’s been given some of the most brilliant words of the last decade, and she doesn’t waste them. But it’s not an incidental success. Nicole makes Virginia into the excellent creation she is. It’s a performance I return to often just to see the brilliance of this woman, arguably the greatest all-rounder we’ve had this decade but it’s her Virginia Woolf that makes me return to this film like a boomerang.
This remains as a beloved of mine whenever I think of her. But what do you think of Nicole’s Virginia Woolf?


Mike Lippert said...

I am beginning to see a trend here between your choices for performance and The Hours. I'd love to read a full review of it from you if there isn't already one somewhere on this site. As I've stated in the thread on Ed Harris, The Hours is a film I greatly admire but don't love, but as a book it is one of my favourites.

Robert said...

It's great that all three women from The Hours have made your list, because they're all so deserving. I just don't understand the hate for Nicole Kidman - I mean, she was brilliant and subtle and it's such a fantastic performance.

Twister said...

Kidman came off as false and forced, cold with a brittle center.

Moore was emotionally true, and underplayed they way Kidman should have.