23 February 2008

On Acting, and Romola Garai

Much to atone for: Garai

Yesterday I saw the English film Atonement, in which one of the leading roles is taken by an actress named Romola Garai. This is the second picture of hers I’ve seen*, the other being François Ozon’s catastrophic Angel, and I’m at the point of hoping I never see another. Not since Renée Zellweger has an actress aroused in me so violent an antipathy. The question is why. Is Romola Garai a bad actress, or is she merely fated to have portrayed two unsympathetic characters in two films?

After all, an actress has to eat (unless she is Garai’s Atonement co-star, Keira Knightley), and therefore she must take the roles that are given her, and do with them what she can.

In Atonement, Garai plays an 18-year-old nurse, emotionally stunted by an error committed in childhood. She can’t atone; she can barely express her remorse. Instead, she relies on high-flown, insincere-sounding apologies that no one (including the audience) particularly wants to hear. Her inner torment is not only repressed, it’s boring.

Could another actress have made this part work? We have some clues here, because the same character is played by two other actresses, young Saoirse Ronan and distinguished Vanessa Redgrave, and we don’t want to smack them. Is it only because Ronan is a child, and because Redgrave is old? I think not. Both of these actresses get under the character’s skin, and we respond with sympathy (and an Oscar nomination) to Ronan’s confusion and with respect to Redgrave’s authority. But — I repeat — I want to smack Garai.

Angel as Monster

She’s a blonde in Atonement, so at first I didn’t recognize her as the title character, a brunette, of Angel. That picture was an utter mess, the depiction of the rise and fall of an ambitious young writer at the beginning of the 19th century — and Angel is a monster, vicious to her family, castrating to her husband. We might accept this if there were any indication that Angel has talent as a writer, but she’s worse than a hack. She’s a stupid hack. Willful in her ignorance of life, she writes overblown, romantic plots studded with false facts. (French critics dwelt on one scene, in which she stubbornly refuses to rewrite a passage in which a character is seen opening a bottle of champagne with a corkscrew.)

Angel is utterly convinced of her own brilliance, and for a time her books are successful. Ozon, a Frenchman working with an English-language script, seems to understand this aspect of her work; what I can’t tell is whether he knows how bad her prose style (read aloud onscreen) really is. And thus Angel wrecks lives in the service of a supremely minor talent. That may be the point, and it may be autobiographical, so far as Ozon, a notably shallow filmmaker, is concerned. But it’s hard to watch. One minor talent, as portrayed by another minor talent, does not a satisfactory spectacle make.

Again the question arises: would another actress do a better job? Here the answer is an unqualified yes. The screen is full of willful, destructive heroines for whom we feel enough sympathy to understand something of ourselves. Or sometimes we merely marvel at their cunning exploits, as we marvel at those of Richard III in the theater. The best example of this may be Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara, a creature who (to cite but one of her multiple flaws) makes miserable almost everyone around her in the pursuit of an idiotic schoolgirl crush. Yet we don’t hate her: we name our daughters after her.

Called on the carpet: At a premiere

Garai lacks charisma, a kind of star quality, a relish in the playing, that can maintain interest (and, yes, provoke sympathy) in even the most odious characters. It’s not Garai’s fault that she’s been given two odious characters to play, and both writers, too, a métier that is notoriously difficult to depict dramatically. It isn’t entirely her fault that she doesn’t bring the viewer along for these women’s inner journeys. The director and screenwriter bear a responsibility, too. But in Angel, Garai has abundant opportunities — she’s onscreen almost every second of a very long film — and she does nothing with them.

She’s young yet, and perhaps she’ll develop her craft over time. But I doubt I’ll be coming along for the ride.

*UPDATE: A quick check confirms that I’ve seen Romola Garai in two other pictures, as Kate Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby and as Amelia Sedley in Vanity Fair, in which Reese Witherspoon plays (very well) another odious yet sympathetic heroine, Becky Sharp. Garai didn’t bother me in these movies: in fact, I didn’t notice her. Perhaps 19th-century milk-toast is more her calling. Yet even these parts can be made compelling: look at the distinction Olivia de Havilland brought to Melanie Hamilton Wilkes (a revised portrait of Amelia Sedley, as it happens). My position remains unchanged.