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Anna Friel: A Woman On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakthrough

When the Emmy nominations were announced last Thursday, Anna Friel’s name was not called. This is not all that surprising. Her name did not come up on any of the prediction lists. I don’t recall a single article so much as tossing a bon mot in her direction.

Last week I finished watching season 2 of Marcella. Friel’s Netflix – by way of Britain’s ITV – London crime series about the ever-unstable title character who is also an excellent detective. Marcella cloaks itself in a Prime Suspect sheen. It’s gritty, handsomely mounted, grim, and dark. It’s also completely batshit. For all its prestige TV cloaking, it is dependent upon outrageous coincidence and character choices that strain far beyond the boundaries of credulity. It is well-polished pulp delivered on a near-operatic scale. Whether it wants to admit that or not.

There are times, such as when Marcella suffers from one of her blackouts and attacks her ex-husband’s girlfriend in the middle of the street – an act that merits not even a slap on the wrist, let alone a suspension – that you almost want to laugh. Check that. Point and laugh.

But you don’t. And the reason why you refrain is because of the powerful, almost feral, performance of Anna Friel. Whether she is losing her mind, brutalizing an innocent, or doing harm unto her person, she is completely believable at every step. There is a moment in the finale of season 2 where Friel commits an act of violence so horrifying, I gasped loud enough from the seat of my couch that I woke one of my dogs.

In some ways, she reminds me of Mel Gibson. Think about crazy ol’ Mel in the first Lethal Weapon. Where in the opening 20 minutes, he puts a gun in his mouth and you know he isn’t going to pull the trigger because there would be no movie if he did. Yet, in the moment, you wonder. Or, look at Braveheart. Which has a long close-up of a blue face-painted Mel doing nothing more than flaring his nostrils. It should be ridiculous. It’s not. Because you believe that bastard is legit crazy.

I felt that way watching Anna Friel in Marcella. No matter how enjoyably (and it is enjoyable) nonsensical the show becomes, you believe in her. Always.

Even better was her work on last year’s season 2 of The Girlfriend Experience from Starz. The second season of the show tells two stories at once. One 1/2 hour is devoted to Carmen Ejogo’s former call girl trying to break free from the confines of witness protection after turning on her criminal husband. It’s good and worth seeing, but it’s Friel’s portion that is truly something. Friel plays Erica Myles, a high-powered Republican fundraiser who gets in deep after blackmailing a deep-pocketed, dark money operative. As her desperation to keep from being uncovered in her professional life reaches night-sweat proportions, so is her personal life coming apart.

Her long-term lover leaves her, and she takes up with Anna (the amazing Louisa Krause). A prostitute involved in the blackmailing of the operative. At first, the dalliance is a distraction from Erica’s other woes. But as Anna becomes more infatuated, Erica leads her on in ways that are increasingly cruel. Erica’s ex treated her horribly. Dominating the relationship and setting all expectations within it. When Erica does the same to Anna, you see her begin to despise Anna for her acquiescence, and therefore hating herself all the more, as Anna’s need and perceived weakness mirrors that of her own.

It’s a remarkable performance. One that brought to mind Tilda Swinton’s work in Michael Clayton. The powerful, well-to-do mover and shaker who gets in over her head until she is left with nothing but the knees beneath her that she crumbles down to.

I don’t know if Friel set out to play back-to-back roles as a woman on the verge. I only know that the rawness and courage of her work is gobsmacking. For an actor best known for her role on the short-lived but well-loved whimsy of Pushing Daisies, these two parts were not foreseeable. Sadly, few literally saw either, and her performances in both feel like songs unsung. Which I guess is the whole reason why I decided to scratch this out on her behalf. This is the kind of work that deserves many champions and should lead to more excellent parts.

When you write for a site called Awards Daily, you don’t pretend that awards aren’t important. It’s in our name for Pete’s sake. Awards lead to recognition and opportunity for people at the height of their craft. There’s no point downplaying that and I wouldn’t even try (hey, I love this gig!). What I would say is that the work is even more important than the nomination, or even the hearing of your name being called when the envelope is opened. For the most part, people forget who won what, for what, and when. Do people forget when they’ve seen greatness though? I think not, and Anna Friel delivered greatness.

I, for one, will remember.