Secret weapon

I happen to be a fan of Tom Wilkinson. The name doesn’t really register to most people. They might think they’ve heard of him somewhere, but they’re not exactly sure where. And yet, it is almost certain that he has deeply affected their movie-going experience through the years. Tom Wilkinson is the kind of actor who makes any movie he is in much better, yet people don’t notice him – he operates by stealth, working on you without you quite realizing how.

He first registered in my consciousness when I saw him as Tom Fowler in In the Bedroom, back in 2001. He was so convincing as a man from New England that I was completely taken by surprise to learn that he is actually British. What could have been an eye-rolling melodrama became, through his subtle treatment of the lead, a deeply effecting study of a good man pushed by extreme events to betray his principles.

And he has a way of making other actors look good. If you’ve seen Batman Begins, you most likely remember Killian Murphy’s Scarecrow as a genuinely disturbing and frightening villian. I would argue that what you are probably actually remembering is the moment when Wilkinson, as the arrogant crime boss Carmine Falcone, is suddenly transformed by the Scarecrow into a hapless psychotic, thrown into an imaginary world of unbounded terror. It is Wilkinson who makes this scene – personally I thought it was the only truly transcendent moment in the entire film.

Going back to the theme of a man betraying his principles, think about Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. One remembers this as a romance starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, but in fact the story is, at its core, a tragedy centered on the character of Wilkinson’s Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, a man trapped by his own faustian manipulations of fate and memory.

Thinking about what Kaufman has written here, I am reminded of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, an absurdist comedy in which the minor courtiers, little more than a footnote in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, are put center stage: The events in Hamlet’s great tragic tale are glimpsed from their oddly limited off-kilter point of view.

Kaufman is up to something similar in Eternal Sunshine, but to more serious purpose. From the somewhat limited viewpoints of Carrey and Winslet’s characters of Joel and Clementine, we witness an immense tragedy, caused by Wilkinson’s doomed Mierzwiak. On paper, the character reads as an unredeemable monster. And yet Wilkinson underplays the part with enormous subtlety and sadness and grace. In the hands of a lesser actor, this character would have been a cardboard villian. But Wilkinson, by playing the role so perfectly, makes you feel the man’s pain, the way he has become trapped by the insane world created by his own misplaced genius.

Nobody thinks of this as a film starring Tom Wilkinson, and yet his performance transforms it, gives it the extra levels of depth it needs to achieve greatness. Kaufman and director Michel Gondry both took home Oscars for this film, and I am sure they both realized what a debt they owe to Tom Wilkinson, its secret weapon.

One Response to “Secret weapon”

  1. Bernadette says:

    He also was splendid as Ben Franklin in HBO’s John Adams series. But one of the most powerful performances by him is the attorney whose trying to make good and loses his mind in Michael Clayton…He rocks in that and was nominated for an academy award. He’s one of the greats like Walter Brennan.

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