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Casting About for Period Pain

This feature examined what works and what doesn’t when contemporary actresses are cast in period roles. It appeared in the A2 section of The Age on Saturday 3 January, 2009.

Who made Keira Knightley the corset queen? I’m seriously tempted to leave this article right there, as an anguished cry for the ages, were it not a genuine puzzle that must be solved. Because Knightley seems constantly, perversely cast in period films.

Skinny to the point of emaciation, she barely fills out her sumptuous costumes and gets “buxomed up” with squishy bra inserts and Photoshop.

Worse, Knightley favours self-conscious head-tossing and sassy little speeches made with the upper portion of her cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk’s. Most irritating of all is her default facial expression: that pout with lips ever so slightly parted.

But Knightley is instructive. She reveals our expectation that a good actress “disappears” into a historical character, subsuming her modernity to a factually correct vision of the past.

Historical dramas and biographical pictures weren’t always expected to be time machines. Pretty much the only historically accurate thing about Greta Garbo’s 1933 turn as Queen Christina of Sweden was that she and Christina were both Swedish. Twenty years later, Doris Day’s portrayal of Martha Jane Cannary-Burke (Calamity Jane) turned a grizzled frontierswoman into an all-singin’, all-dancin’, all-sarsaparilly-quaffin’ tomboy.

These golden-age Hollywood period films were vivid, escapist pageants or tense, claustrophobic psychodramas, and actresses gave performances steeped in glorious artifice. There were commanding, theatrical turns such as Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion In Winter; dour historical figures were reinvented as sunnily gorgeous heroines, as Julie Andrews did in The Sound Of Music; and there was plenty of vampish, seductive eye candy, including Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, that notorious folly that nearly ruined Twentieth Century Fox.

But recent period films – especially biopics – have had to balance the box-office pull of a gorgeous star with the contemporary demand for accuracy. Movies are criticised for casting an actress too young, old, thin, fat, pale, dark, what have you, to pass convincingly in the designated era. Conversely, movies are praised for the star’s close physical resemblance to the personage she plays – but just as often, for the effort she makes to shed her contemporary sense of vanity and comfort in the service of her character.

Wigs, “ugly” or “old” make-up, fat suits and coloured contact lenses are all common ways for Hollywood actresses to debase themselves in the pursuit of authentic characterisation. As an award-chasing strategy, prosthetic makeup is up there with what Ben Stiller so controversially yet aptly lampooned as “going the full retard”. We might call it “going the full nose”, after Nicole Kidman’s Oscar-winning turn as Virginia Woolf in The Hours.

But authenticity isn’t always about prosthetic ugliness. After all, what we really seek from contemporary historical cinema are emotional truths: impervious to anachronism, resonating down the ages to reassure us of the universality of human experience. And particular actresses weave these truths because their acting styles reflect the way the filmmaker wants audiences to respond to the character.

Keira Knightley, for instance, is malnourished and pouty. Sharp-jawed and huge-eyed, she brings a brittle petulance to roles of delicate women under stress, such as Vera Phillips (The Edge of Love) and Georgiana Spencer (The Duchess). It’s compelling to anticipate when she’ll finally crack – even if her slack mouth creeps the hell out of me in love scenes.

Other malnourished and pouty actresses include Gwyneth Paltrow, who infused Sylvia Plath (Sylvia) with a similar anxiety and sense of inevitable breakdown, and Sienna Miller, all fidgety cigarette fingers and darting raccoon eyes as doomed Factory Girl Edie Sedgwick. These actresses’ gaunt self-consciousness evokes a tension between obsessiveness and fragility that really works for these characters.

But to evoke a character adrift in the world, get someone dead-eyed and apathetic. Take Scarlett Johansson as Mary Boleyn (The Other Boleyn Girl). Scarlett is regularly accused of not being able to act, which rather misses the point. By “acting”, most critics mean “emoting” and “scenery-chewing”, and they often judge Johansson as “emotionless” and “unconvincing”. But consciously or unconsciously, her acting is like milk: pale, cool, opaque. We’re not meant to understand and sympathise with Mary Boleyn, but to recognise in her someone piloted on the currents of history by scarcely seen impulses. Her thoughts don’t sparkle on the surface, as do her sister Anne’s (the malnourished and pouty Natalie Portman).

As Marie Antoinette in Sofia Coppola’s stylised film, Kirsten Dunst brings this acting style to its dead-eyed apotheosis. In just one glazed, heavy-lidded stare, Dunst makes us realise how all the French queen’s dissolution and excesses arise from being bewildered and mind-numbingly bored.

Nobody ever accuses Cate Blanchett of being a bad actor, but then her handsome and imperious acting style is the real Academy-baiting stuff. It has a certain gravitas that suits intrepid, authoritative characters whom audiences are meant to admire. And Blanchett has played plenty: Elizabeth I, Veronica Guerin, Charlotte Gray … She was an especially canny choice as Katharine Hepburn (The Aviator), and not just because her patrician features and willowy figure resemble Hepburn’s – rather, Hepburn herself was handsome and imperious. Like Meryl Streep, Blanchett can be far more mercurial than other handsome and imperious actresses who, like Tilda Swinton and Kristin Scott Thomas, get typecast as ice queens (although Scott Thomas has sidetracked into being chic and frenchy). Nicole Kidman was handsome and imperious when she went the full nose, but these days – perhaps because of her increasingly immobile face – her acting is considerably more mannered.

Still, Kidman’s repertoire of troubled frowns, startled glances and bird-like head movements worked especially well in a role many critics claimed she was miscast in: Diane Arbus in Fur. As a biopic, this odd, surreal fairytale is a failure because it’s explicitly uninterested in lionising Arbus’s life and work. But Kidman’s performance nails what the film is about: how perverse affections and creative impulses arise from constricted, tormented bodies.

But to convey a tender, worldly quality, get a warm and sensible actress. They play characters whose hopes flicker across their faces, who provide the harbours in which flightier characters shelter.

As teen murderess Juliet Hulme (Heavenly Creatures), Kate Winslet has a cheeky unself-consciousness that illuminates why the sullen Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) might be drawn to her. People often cite Winslet’s “English rose” looks as her key qualification for period roles, but it’s her exuberance that attracts audiences.

Her joyous yet sharply intellectual portrayal of the young Iris Murdoch (Iris) enhances the tragedy of Murdoch’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. And as Sylvia Llewellyn Davies (Finding Neverland), she conveys the melancholy of being caught between imaginative possibilities and social strictures. The scene in which Sylvia sees Neverland for the first time is one of the film’s most affecting.

Winslet and her fellow warm and sensible actor Emma Thompson were perfectly cast as sisters in Sense and Sensibility: Winslet impulsive; Thompson much more wry. There’s a humorousness to Thompson’s acting that never veers into farce; she could be serious even playing opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in the ridiculous Junior. And in Carrington, she injects a wonderful humanity into both the absurd and the heartbreaking moments of Dora Carrington’s life.

However, Thompson was dreadful as Lady Marchmain in the recent Brideshead Revisited. She could have used her warm sensibility to reveal Lady Marchmain’s charming manipulation of trust. Instead, Thompson tries for handsome and imperious, and turns out a mean harridan that, as Jake Wilson pointed out in The Age, seems nearer to Lady Bracknell from The Importance of Being Earnest.

The “best” actresses in period films are those whose performance styles create emotional connections between screen and audience, between past and present.

Even Keira Knightley’s horrible poncing, I’m annoyed to say, works for the characters she plays. So through gritted teeth, I spit that she is “a good actress”.