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Stanton Peele

Stanton Peele

Posted: March 15, 2011 08:51 AM

Three Actressing Tour de Forces


The New York Times has marqueed three films across its movie page since last Friday: Red Riding Hood, Certified Copy, and Jane Eyre. Each film is represented in the newspaper by a shot of its starring actress: Amanda Seyfried, Juliette Binoche, Mia Wasikowska.

Each actress (and her character) is passionate, committed, intuitive -- and vulnerable. It's tempting to say that each expresses the brilliance of a woman of her culture: Seyfried a spunky American, feisty and independent; Binoche a passionate Frenchwoman, emotional and expressive; Wasikowska a steely Englishwoman, resolute and intelligent.

Of course, this simplifies -- Hood is a European fairy tale; Copy is set in Italy, the male lead is English, and the director -- Abbas Kiarostami -- is Iranian; and Wasikowska -- despite appearing in a film of a classic English novel by Emily Bronte and having a seemingly ethnic Polish name -- is in fact Australian. Furthermore, Eyre is directed by American Cary Fukunaga. (Hood director Catherine Hardwicke is, well, a Texan - which some claim to be a separate nation.)

My, film-making is international these days.

We should start with Binoche's other-worldy, yet truly earthy, performance as a seeming groupie who stalks an English author (she buys six hardback copies of his book) who metamorphosizes into his ex-spouse (don't ask). At the same time as she is maddening (she talks throughout his lecture and leaves noisily a few minutes into it to tend to their son), she is also brilliant and deeply, deeply in love with the man. But he (played by William Shimell) is more maddening. The shot representing the film in the Times is of Binoche's character trying on earrings as she primps to have a romantic dinner with the man in an Italian village known for its weddings and newlyweds -- and where she claims they spent their wedding night.

But he is unmovable, using the meal to criticize the waiter (typically, they end up not eating) and to claim his falling asleep the night before as she once again had primped for a romantic interlude meant nothing more than when she had once dozed off while she was driving -- which he presents illogically in his typically intellectualized fashion.

Maddening! And tragic. And Binoche expresses every ounce of the tragedy inherent in these characters' inability to connect. In the last scene -- in their honeymoon hotel -- she notes that if only they could be more tolerant of one another they could each have the other as a bulwark against a lonesome eternity. It is hard to imagine anyone imbuing this heartbreaking truth with more feeling and meaning than Binoche.

Seyfried's portfolio to date would not suggest much depth -- a beautiful young soap opera actress who starred in Mean Girls just out of high school, then in several TV series and the unnotable film adoption of the musical Momma Mia! But, boy, going by these would you be in for a surprise! She is a naive yet passionate girl-woman in Hood, one willing and able to defend herself and those she loves -- including standing up to a malevolently intimidating priest played by Gary Oldman -- whether with her personality, a knife or her body and her passion.

Finally comes Wasikowska. The lead character in Eyre -- is not a prepossessing beauty -- she is small and resilient. (Wasikowska played a would-be gymnast in the HBO series In Treatment.) Her character is -- by necessity of her experience as an orphan, ward and tutor -- reserved and self-contained. But she is also strong beyond words -- her love is gladly given, hard won, and enduring (a statement true for the other two characters as well) -- but she is unforgiving if she is betrayed.

Paraphrasing the eloquent expression of Christian humility by Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address -- the prayers of none of these three women could be answered fully -- and each woman is not fulfilled in a normal love relationship. Per Lincoln, "The Almighty (and fate) has his own purposes." But none of the three go gentle into that good night.