A star is born in Elizabeth Olsen. Although many on the fest circuit have already seen Martha Marcy May Marlene, and therefore not much is being written about her performance but it’s well worth mentioning that it’s rare to have such a spectacular debut from someone coming from utter obscurity (okay, so being an Olsen sister isn’t exactly obscurity but you get the idea). She reminds me of Carey Mulligan’s debut — Mulligan just gets better and better, clearly not satisfied with being the “it” girl for a second, she’s now built an impressive, diverse body of work that should make this year’s graduates hopeful for their future; Hollywood so often takes the pretty young things, uses them up, spits them out and by the time they hit 30 there is nothing left of them.
Steven Soderbergh said once that talent and hard work equal luck: be ready when it happens. I think he said that. If he didn’t say that exactly he said something along those lines. Mulligan was ready when it happened to her. Already this year she’s turned in two magnificent supporting performance, each completely different from the other — what they share is her unmistakable vulnerability. She steals Drive as the literal “girl next door,” and in Shame, she plays someone so wrecked internally she can barely make it through the day. There is no doubt Mulligan is something special.
Will this be Elizabeth Olsen’s fate? Here is what the NY Times says about her (he’s mixed on the film in general – but even those who are mixed are sure about her):
Whatever her name, and whatever her mood — it ranges from vaguely unsettled to acutely anguished — Martha is played by Elizabeth Olsen, a very pretty actress whose on-camera presence is at once vivid and interestingly blurred. Her features seem to shift, appearing sharp from some angles and soft from others, and her body can look alternately sturdy and frail, depending on the circumstances.
Ms. Olsen’s performance is both the key to the film and the source of its sometimes frustrating opacity. Like Todd Haynes’s “Safe” (though with less ambition or intellectual rigor), “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is, in part, a psychological case study of someone whose inner life is permanently out of reach, if it even exists at all.
Olsen — the younger sister of famous twin performing pros Mary-Kate and Ashley, but possessed of striking talent and beauty that need no familial hook — plays Martha. And also Marcy May. As well as Marlene, since all three names describe the same malleable woman. Martha was her name in girlhood. Marcy May is her nom de cult, given to the newcomer by the group’s paternalistic, seductively twisted leader, Patrick (Winter’s Bone‘s John Hawkes, adding to his impressive collection of skinny, charismatic, dangerous men). Marlene? Well, that’s a variation on her Marcy May disguise.
The camera holds on her, in a faint breeze, and, for a few seconds, becomes helplessly—and dangerously—complicit in his wiles: all of a sudden, Elizabeth Olsen, who until now has seemed fragile and doll-like in her prettiness, seems overwhelmingly beautiful. He has, indeed, made her into “just a picture,” framed for his monstrous convenience, and the miracle of Olsen’s work in this film is that she both bows to that imposition, as befits her character’s vulnerability, and also struggles against it, as if to shout, “No, that is not all. He can’t watch me forever. I can be free.” She could almost be a movie star under the whip of a demonic director, and the battle to cling to her coherent self is as touching—and, depending on how you read the final shot, as undecided—as Elisabeth Shue’s portrayal of another victim, in “Leaving Las Vegas.” In Martha’s slow, stunned movements, which persist even in the refuge of her sister’s home, we see what it means to be colonized in spirit, and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is not so much a religious parable as a private war film: Patrick versus Martha, the conqueror against the virgin land. It should be a great escape, too, but I fear the worst.
Another breakthrough female this year is Octavia Spencer in The Help. Her supporting turn in the film is one of the reasons The Help did well, money wise, but also why it’s being talked about an “Oscar contender,” which I guess just means it’s good enough to be “worthy” of their votes. One has to be specific about these things, to be clear about what the Oscars themselves really mean. But that is neither here nor there – the point is, Spencer bursts forth from The Help – and that is no easy feat with the kinds of supporting actresses in the film with her.
Owen Gleiberman says about her (and her co-star, Ms. Davis):
Set in Jackson, Miss. — the middle-class heart of the Deep South — The Help is Aibileen’s story, and it’s also the story of her best friend, Minny (Octavia Spencer), a pixie-faced rascal of a housekeeper/cook who’s as feisty and contemptuous as Aibileen is circumspect. Davis and Spencer are both brilliant, etching these women’s hopes and broken dreams with every line, and between the lines, too. The film is also about their comrades, and about the women they work for — a group of eager, perky housewives (they’re like Southern-fried Betty Drapers) who are just the sort of bridge-club-and-benefit types that the movies love to caricature.
Spencer is more likely to earn a Supporting nod than Mulligan or Olsen because hers buzz and prominence is not up for debate and there aren’t many if any in line in front of her. Mulligan has been to the big show and truly deserves to be there again for both of her performances in Drive and Shame, but doesn’t that mean that they will split the vote? Elizabeth Olsen seems headed for recognition but she’s got many strong performances to contend with – sure, she could probably knock out a vet, given that she’s young and very pretty, and Oscar voters like that…Of the five actresses who seems to be currently in the Best Actress race, they are all vets except for Michelle Williams, who sits alongside Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Viola Davis, and Tilda Swinton. With performances by Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method, Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and, if Jeff Wells has his way, Olivia Colman from Tyrannosaur. Olsen has as good a shot as any of these. It’s never easy picking and choosing. The choices will be made for us once awards season in in full swing.
The final actress in our spotlight is Felicity Jones, who won
girl I’d most like to sleep with Best Actress at Sundance, which set her up for a decent Oscar run. But again, in such a competitive year, it’s hard to imagine her getting in there. On the other hand, none of that should negate the great leap forwards she’s gotten with this film this year. Jones must play an array of emotions and levels of maturity as she goes from besotted college girl to world-weary adult. She’s caught between worlds. She wants to hold onto the temporary magic of right time/right place love and yet she pulled back to reality when things don’t work out as expected.
Like Crazy is a movie that will either captivate you or depress you, depending on where you sit on the love scale. Are you disillusioned by love? Are you hopeful about love? Do you believe in true love? Do you believe in giving up everything for love? Are you stuck on the same person from your past that you can’t let go of?
The beauty of Like Crazy is that it doesn’t answer these questions for you. This is what I loved about it. Now that I’m heading out of my youth and into middle age (kill me now) I do see love differently. But I also remember what it’s like to be caught up in an impossible, undeniable whirlwind. I know what it is to cling. I was impressed with Like Crazy because it didn’t give us what we wanted. It didn’t give us the satisfying happy ending of lovers running to each other to live happily ever after. It didn’t do that. It reminded me of The Graduate where the two young ones are just sitting there wondering what is about to happen next.
But that kind of ending, that kind of ambiguity leaves people feeling uncomfortable, which probably explains the mixed response the film has been getting since Sundance. For me, it has only grown in my admiration as I’ve thought about it. If I didn’t go for it immediately after seeing it, I have found that it stuck with me. Its unpredictable storytelling, truthful acting, and willingness to face some kind of truth about love itself makes me admire it all the more.
And that is why I think its star, Felicity Jones, deserves to be in the conversation. The film has yet to be reviewed by the major critics, so I’ll wait before assessing her Oscar chances. More than that, though, she’s certainly carved out a place for herself with this one role this year, like Olsen and Spencer, and of course, Olivia Colman.
Whether Jeff Wells’ campaign proves successful or not, there is little doubt that a star has been born with Olivia Colman as the abused wife in Tyrannosaur. Although the film’s yet to be reviewed over here by the major press, it has gotten ink in England.
Here is some of the praise for Colman:
Part of the film’s powerful sadness – and it really is a tough watch – lies in the way it shows how Hannah’s whole martyred existence is a self-created mythology she has built up around her to explain away the shame of tolerating abuse. Her earnest volunteering at the charity shop, her putting up with things, even her faith itself, is all a way of giving meaning to her humiliation and pain. The Christianity could simply be a delusional sham, part of the abuse and co-dependency, and a sham in which even James himself sickeningly participates. Colman’s Hannah has created a gravitational aura of self-harm, that draws Joe in. But their relationship may still create a kind of escape for them both, even a redemption. And it develops in a very unexpected way.
I have heard Tyrannosaur criticised as a movie that comes too close to miserablist cliche, but that isn’t true: it’s a visceral, considered dissection of abuse and rage and the dysfunctional relationships that rage creates, which, in turn, perpetuate that rage, and an examination of people who create their own eco-system of anger and unhappiness. The performances of Mullan, Colman and Marsan are excellent and create a compelling human drama. Tyrannosaur is far from a love story, but it is not a simply a hate story, either; it is certainly a very impressive debut from Considine.
Meanwhile, a second, much more straightforward plot line charts Joseph’s confrontations with a pit bull-toting scumbag who lives across the road. Shot with a kind of spaghetti western bombast, these scenes – extraordinarily brutal as they are – offer a welcome break from the much harder-to-watch domestic violence sequences. After seeing Colman being punched, tormented, spat at and much worse, a middle-aged Scottish alcoholic swinging a sledgehammer at a goon in a tracksuit is comparatively light relief.
Thematically, Tyrannosaur is rooted in the British kitchen sink dramas of the 1960s — it’s filmed in Leeds, everyone’s miserable — and it also shares some common ground with Nil By Mouth, the harrowing 1997 spousal abuse drama written and directed by Gary Oldman. In fact, this connection runs deep since Considine wrote Dog Altogether, the Bafta-winning short on which Tyrannosaur is based, while working with Oldman, who offered him advice on the scripts for both the original film and this expansion of it. In terms of craft, however, it’s got more in common with the work of Considine’s long-time collaborator Shane Meadows — specifically, his knack for puncturing grisly social realism with lighter moments.
The lion’s share of these come via Colman. Rare as it is here, her smile could toast marshmallows, and her brave, unguarded performance should (and hopefully will) net her a best actress nomination at the Baftas. Mullan, meanwhile, is typically excellent in a familiar-ish role and Marsan turns in a performance of florid and convincing horribleness .
When you find yourself wondering what good the awards race can do – you need only look at these actresses. What it does for them is what it also can do for writers, animators, designers, musicians, directors and producers. Buzz, attention, accolades, these are the forces that impact the evolution of movie making. Would these same forces exist without awards? Hard to say. We seem to have the need to decide who’s best, which, of course, always comes down to a matter of opinion. What awards do is prove consensus. And the buzz around them feeds the beast.