Judging the performance of a child actor is uniquely challenging in that it can be difficult to tell how much of the skill of the performance is attributable to the child, and how much is attributable to the director’s ability to draw the performance out. Certainly, given that Quvenzhane Wallis was only five years old when the film was made, director Benh Zeitlin deserves a fair bit of credit for shaping the performance, but even so Wallis demonstrates a lot of natural talent. She isn’t overly precocious and never mugs for the camera, and the way that she engages with co-star Dwight Henry in the film’s darkest scenes is impressive. Her experience level may be small, but she carries this film easily with a strong, charismatic performance.
Meryl Streep has played a lot of extraordinary women, women who command attention and dominate every scene. Her character in Hope Springs is the opposite, a timid woman who practically shrinks into herself whenever attention is turned to her, a woman for whom it takes everything just to admit that she wants to be happy, leaving almost nothing left with which to make that happen. She’s an absolutely ordinary woman, but the performance is as skilled as any Streep has given over the last decade, delivering a sometimes heartbreaking depiction of a woman struggling to come to terms with the next phase of her life, and with the loneliness she feels in her marriage. In comparison to her other recent performances, this one is extremely stripped down, but it is also excellent.
Addiction is difficult to depict on film, in that it’s practically an invitation to overact and play emotions in an exaggerated way. Kelly Reilly’s performance in Flight goes in the opposite direction, rooted in a quiet kind of desperation that comes straight from the character’s core. As a heroin addict who hits rock bottom and then struggles to maintain her precarious sobriety, Reilly allows herself to be intensely vulnerable even while displaying immense reserves of strength. Flight ultimately lets her down, shunting her character offscreen midway through the story, but for the period of time that the film allows her story to run parallel to that of star Denzel Washington, she more than holds her own, offering a nice counterpoint to his interpretation of a character with addiction. The role is small, but the performance is flawless.
Michelle Williams is certainly no stranger to playing dissatisfied wives, but she can hardly be said to be resting on her laurels. Her performance in Take This Waltz as a woman filled with doubt and longing is engaging, sometimes maddening, and often touching. She’s not afraid to let her character behave in a way that is less than admirable – her behavior at times is, in fact, abominable – but that is, of course, what makes the character feel all the more real. This is a wonderfully lived-in performance, similar to previous characters in only superficial ways, as this character becomes her own particular entity, with her own very specific needs and disappointments. There should really be no doubt at this point that Williams is one of the finest actresses working today but, if there is, I would offer this performance as one of the proofs that she’s deserving of that distinction.
Jessica Chastain’s Maya is an unusual kind of female character, in that her turmoil is never related to any kind of romantic life, but she’s also an unusual character in a more general way. Her single-minded vision is reminiscent of that of There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview – she lives for one thing and one thing only: finding and killing Osama bin Laden. Nothing else matters, nothing else even factors. On one level, there isn’t much to Maya other than her relentless drive, but Chastain is nevertheless able to bring a sense of fullness to her portrayal and glimpses of a human being behind the mission. She plays Maya as a woman who could believably command the kind of attention and deference she gets in a male-dominated field, a woman who gets the job done and makes no apologies for it.
Anne Hathaway’s character, Fantine, is not long for this world, nor is she long for the movie. But in her brief period onscreen, she makes a deep impression as a woman who consistently gets dealt life’s roughest cards, trying desperately to hold on to the very fringes of society for the sake of her daughter, and sinking deeper and deeper into the mire. In Hathaway’s show stopping rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” the agony of Fantine’s existence – betrayed, abandoned, forsaken by all polite society – becomes the driving force of the scene. Within the span of a song, Fantine summarizes her life and its many disappointments and Hathaway’s rendition is powerful and heartrending. Although she bows out of the film early, the impression she makes last right through to the end.
The most impressive thing about Naomi Watts’ performance in The Impossible is how much she holds back and how effective that is. As a survivor of the 2004 tsunami, she spends the majority of the film slowly fading away from her wounds, struggling fiercely not just to survive, but to maintain a brave face for the benefit of her son. The power of the performance comes from its quietest moments, those ones where Watts shows her character silently reaching deep into the reserves of her strength so that she can keep going just a little bit further. Due to the requirements of the role, it’s a performance that might be written off as “a lot of screaming,” but that’s a shallow observation that ignores the skill that Watts displays. Not every actor can take a character who spends a good chunk of the film drifting in and out of consciousness, and make her a forceful and effective presence nevertheless.
Midway through Silver Linings Playbook, Jennifer Lawrence gets to deliver a wonderful line which acknowledges that while her character, Tiffany, has issues, she can still embrace and be proud of the person that she is. She is at once vulnerable and defiant – a mixture that will prove consistent throughout Lawrence’s characterization. It’s near impossible to pinpoint any one moment that stands out as her best here because she’s so good throughout, meeting co-star Bradley Cooper note for note, and easily holding her own with Robert De Niro. There are so many ways that an actor could go wrong with a role like this, but Lawrence finds the sweet spot, taking Tiffany as far as she can go without ever tripping over the edge.
The Deep Blue Sea begins with a suicide attempt and descends deeper and deeper into the realm of emotional masochism. Hester, the protagonist masterfully played by Rachel Weisz, is a woman so deeply in love that that there are no lengths she won’t go to in order to hold on to the man whom she comes to realize no longer loves her. In different hands, the character might seem pathetic and too weak to carry a story. Instead, her struggle and her profound vulnerability are incredibly compelling, as Weisz lays it all out there and meets with rejection after rejection. It’s a beautiful performance that reveals more shades, and has more power, with each viewing.
One of the most remarkable things about Laurence Anyways, the story of its eponymous character’s transition from male to female, is that it gives equal weight to the experience of Laurence’s partner. Although shocked at first, she quickly rallies to support Laurence but finds that she can’t deal with the changes as well as she’d like to. The relationship between Laurence and Suzanne Clement’s Fred is complex and often fraught, and Clement’s performance is carefully crafted to display every facet of Fred’s sometimes contradictory feelings about it. In Clement’s hands, Fred’s love for Laurence is never in doubt, but her feelings about everything else are complicated and sometimes messy – but always very realistic. This is a commanding performance that demands and deserves notice.