Two British actresses continue to dazzle and disarm me with their talent and pedigree, so much so that I found it difficult to choose between them for this installment of A-Z. Read more about my dilemma with 2010’s dualling Hs after the break.
When I talk about the pedigree of Rebecca Hall and Sally Hawkins, I do not mean their birth and breeding, but the growing number of well-crafted, genuinely interesting films to their name–a mark of great chance or excellent choices, but probably both. At the same time, Hawkins and Hall each grew up among artists. Hall is the daughter of Royal Shakespeare Company founder Peter Hall and American opera singer and actress Maria Ewing, so it comes as no surprise that the statuesque beauty (5’10”) began an ambitious stage career at Cambridge University. The diminutive Hawkins (5’5”) is the daughter of children’s book authors and illustrators, making her turn as grade school teacher Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go-Lucky even sweeter in my mind. Hawkins is also very much a part of Leigh’s family of artists, in which she received an upbringing as an actor’s actor, learning to develop characters like Poppy almost out of thin air. I feel I should make an admission: I watched Happy Go-Lucky somewhere in the ballpark of five times. There’s gotta be a conflict of interest here. I also watched Hall in Vicky, Cristina, Barcelonaaround three times, but more so for Penelope Cruz.
Having only one other film to her credit, Hall made a great impression with her breakthrough Hollywood role in Christopher Nolan’s first post-Batman Begins outing. The Prestige (2006) was an ambitious but flawed film, but bearing the Nolan brand, could still be counted on for the best in stylized drama. Scarlett Johansson’s face may bissect the male leads on the poster for this film, but Hall’s haunting performance as Christian Bale’s suffering wife was the more memorable, as it was again in her next film opposite Johansson, Woody Allen’s Barcelonian sexcapade. Hall has only made good films since, a short, but respectable list that includes Frost/Nixon, and a BAFTA-award winning role in the excellent BBC Red Ridingminiseries (opposite new leading man, Andrew Garfield). Like all British actors worth their stuff, Hall has continued to make appearances on stage and in BBC’s often-stellar television productions. I also saw Hall act a small but strong part in 2009’s Dorian Gray at the Toronto International FIlm Festival two years ago. However, the Oscar Wilde adaptation, also starring Ben Barnes (a.k.a. Prince Caspian) and Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), evidently never found a distributor this side of the Atlantic.
In 2010, Hall was acknowledged for her ensemble work in two acclaimed films, The Town, and indie-charmer Please Give. While Hall has proven herself a talented collaborator, the only focused attention she’s received this year is from the Golden Globes, a name that holds little critical merit today, though it isn’t undeserved. Despite a strong start to here career, Hall isn’t riding as high on her breakthrough successes as I thought she would. On the horizon are Everything Must Go with Will Ferrel, and small fry features A Bag of Hammers and The Awakening. The chance to see Hall regain the ground she won with her earlier films and distinguish herself as a lead may only come with her starring roles in Richard Linklater’s latest, 2011’s Liars (A-E) or the Brit List-minted 2012 project, Shadow Dancer. For now, however, only one H can reign, and Hawkins is the woman that takes the title, both for her work ethic and her unrivaled ability to stand out.
Hawkins (H) began her film career with a small role in Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing (2002), but truly secured her place in the director’s fold in his next feature, Vera Drake (2004)–a not-so happy film about a 1950s-era backstreet abortionist. H played Susan in the latter, a college girl who seeks Vera’s help after being sexually assaulted by a date. While H entered the film world in a supporting role, she played lead roles on television, in the popular miniseries Fingersmith and the 2007 Jane Austen adaptation Persuasion (also a personal favourite). When H returned to the big screen in 2008, she not only took the lead role in Leigh’s next film, maybe the only film of his to have such a distinct protagonist, but took the world by surprise with her tenacious performance. When she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical at the 2009 gala, a win validated by awards in the same category from several critics’s associations and the Berlin International Film Festival, everyone in the room cheered. I felt happy, too, and I hadn’t seen the movie yet. At a round table held during the 2008-09 award season, H revealed that Poppy was a character developed by the actress and Leigh through a workshop method, and that when she started the project, there was no knowing how significant her role would be. Since then, H has appeared in many pivotal roles, large and small, in almost equal distribution.
The supporting, yet integral roles the actress acted in last year–a comically wayward wife (Submarine), and a sympathetic teacher (Never Let Me Go)–complement a vibrant, challenging lead persona that demanded the pint-size actress be about a foot taller than she really is–gaining that last few inches on Hall. In 2010, H received critical praise for her portrayal of Rita O’Grady in Made in Dagenham, if you can forgive the comparison, Britain’s answer to Norma Rae. Of the feel-good ilk, the film has the potential to be a digestible package for an award-worthy performance, à la Sandra Bullock in the Blind Side. In truth, the Academy left H off their Best Actress list in 2008, and likely will again. H receives a nod from me for continuing to deliver consistently noteworthy work and with seemingly effortless craft what we otherwise know is meticulously developed.