A a sensitive, geeky youth, stuck on a lonely cattle ranch, might naturally aspire to a benevolent uncle figure; someone to confide in or be mentored by. But company actor Benedict Cumberbatch offers brother-in-law Peter in the widely Oscar-winning western Dog power is a very long and precarious horse ride away from all avuncular.
In fact, Phil Burbank’s portrayal of emotionally upset Phil Burbank’s Cumberbatch is a study of twisted misery. In one of the first scenes, Burbank notices some flimsy paper flowers the teenager made to decorate a table in his mother’s canteen. But, instead of congratulating them, “Uncle Phil” is made to laugh publicly.
Cumberbatch’s mean and tortured performance is part of a select selection of hapless and warped souls played by British stars and vying for awards this season. The haunted and guilty mother of Olivia Colman in The lost girl is also hailed as one of the best screen appearances of the year.
Last week, the two stars and the two films topped nominations for influential upcoming Golden Globes and Critics’ Circle Awards, considered the barometers of the Oscars in Los Angeles at the end of March.
Leda, the character of Colman in The lost girl, is suffocated by memories of her maternal failures and observes all the family activity around her while on vacation on a Greek island with a toxic mixture of pain and panic. the Washington post acknowledged Colman’s “heartbreaking” handling of a woman “who is highly self-protective and deeply vulnerable”, and admires her skill at leading scenes that are “a piece of passive-aggressive subtext”.
The film is based on a novel by Italian author Elena Ferrante and is a directorial debut for established Anglophile actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, who also wrote the screenplay. Colman revealed that what she initially liked about the script was the moral mess it offered an actor.
For Guardian Critic Peter Bradshaw, the treacherous nature of Colman’s mental landscape is the key to the film’s success.
“What’s great about Colman’s performance is that she’s always on the verge of a new revelation about Leda: her face is subtly shaking with… what? Tears? To laugh? A scowl of contempt? ” he wrote.
There is clearly a very strong appetite for dark undertones in current American entertainment, characterized by long-running popular television series such as Ozark and Fargo. These dark and gloomy stories lie on the other end of the streaming spectrum for blockbuster shows like Bridgerton Where Emilie in Paris, but they obviously also meet a public need. They paint in a shaded palette suitable for actors relaxed in the face of complexity and contradiction.
Nick James, former editor of View and sound magazine, wonders if the “otherness” of British stars can also work as a shortcut, or at least a shortcut, to let the American viewer know that this is a character they should be worried about. “Maybe it’s also that the current need to heal the bad guys, to give them a broken house type motivation (as in Joker), demands that the American public detect a strangeness in it. The British are strange in this context, ”he said.
When director Jeymes Samuel, also known as The Bullitts, wanted to embody a disturbing presence as a cowboy capable of not only killing but also carving a cross on a boy’s forehead, he turned to Briton Idris Elba, who masks his British otherness in this film by playing the role of a hanging out Texan. Whether the public knows Elba is British or not, Samuel’s western The more they fall, which released on Netflix last month, is both violent and entertaining.
This can be an uncomfortable combination for some artists and yet easily falls into Elba’s range. So it seems that when Hollywood needs an actor who can communicate questionable motivation, if not downright cruel dysfunction, Britain is now the place to look.
The last episode of the third series of Succession, which aired on both sides of the Atlantic with great success last week, only further continues the trend, with central villainous Logan Roy being played by Scotsman Brian Cox. The American market for anti-heroes with evil screens is, for the moment, cornered.
James watches this blockbuster series – which was conceived by Jesse Armstrong, British creator of Peep Show, and written by a team that includes acclaimed British playwrights Lucy Prebble and Lucy Kirkwood – as an example of true cross-cultural fertilization, with British voices providing much of the expertly formed malevolence.
“There’s something about the difference between British and American satire, where ours is more vicious and theirs is generally relatively polite / toothless,” he said. “Succession is the exception, which makes me think that the presence of British actors allows American productions to go further and darker. American actors are said to fear that such roles will harm their careers.
This is not to underestimate the vile poison that emanates from siblings Shiv and Roman Roy, played by Australian actress Sarah Snook and American actor Kieran Culkin. But out of sheer seething ambiguity, it would be difficult to trump the performance given by British actor Matthew Macfadyen as the hurt but intriguing Tom Wambsgans.
The tradition of allowing a British actor to portray a lack of confidence is, of course, as old as Hollywood. A cut English accent has often been the hallmark of on-screen evil, and particularly in opposition to an American man or woman of action. By James Mason in from north to north-west to the rolling vowels of George Sanders as Shere Khan in The jungle Book, the key Manichean struggles played out in American cinema have repeatedly located the devil as the product of the public school system in the south of England.
Throughout American culture, since the War of Independence, the British have championed, on a subconscious level, the duplicity as well as the alarming affectations of learning from books. It is probably significant that Colman’s Leda is an academic researching her next book, and Cumberbatch’s Burbank is described as an ancient scholastic talent who has since fallen low.
Her character contrasts perfectly with the warmer, chaotic, and depressive emotions so clearly presented by Kirsten Dunst, who plays the mother of Peter, the fiancee of Burbank’s brother. His arrival in this carefully balanced world of angst is the straw that threatens to shatter everything.
Director Jane Campion based her film on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. It is a book admired by Annie Proulx and it shares the themes of repressed sexuality in a brutal and macho world, which were to come back in her last book, brokeback mountain. Phil Burbank is described by Savage as someone who “hated the world, should he hate it first”, and Cumberbatch nails that protective reflex, fueling the narrative with what the New York Times called “virtuoso control”.
If handing out all of these unpleasant roles to British stars sounds like a backhanded compliment, with its roots in years of latent contempt, that doesn’t matter to the actors involved. Cumberbatch and Colman will likely be recognized by their peers at the awards show this winter. Maybe it’s a bit of the stereotypes that have become self-fulfilling, but it’s also very useful. Actors who can at least claim to have been brought up with a mixed diet of wild mind and suppressed mental health are leading the pack when it comes to casting directors.
Like Colman, who after all started his on-screen career in Peep Show, said: “My thing is black comedy. I love it. It’s the whole gamut of humans. We are all a bit of everything. I find that a drama without laughing at all may not be so impactful.