In New York, the pre-movie hype about Woody Allen's latest movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, had all been about the kiss between Penélope Cruz, onscreen and real-life girlfriend of male lead Javier Bardem, and America's modern version of Marilyn Monroe, Scarlett Johansson.
So as I shoveled down popcorn at the New York premiere last week I was taken aback: who was the other female lead -- the non-famous actor who plays the part of cerebral, no-nonsense Vicky, the on-screen contrast to Johansson's mercurial Cristina? Her dark brown eyes conveyed a dismaying pain, a depth of feeling obviously at odds with her more controlled words.
At the dinner afterwards, hosted by the producer, Harvey Weinstein and his gorgeous English wife, Georgina Chapman, everyone was asking the same question. "Who was she?" Eventually I asked Javier Bardem. "She's Rebecca Hall," he explained in his low, gritty voice. In other words, she's the daughter of the British director, Sir Peter. Bardem became passionate: "She is really, really talented," he said.
Hall is not the only British actor to have excited New Yorkers this summer. Ricky Gervais is a stand-out as a British dentist in Ghost Town; Pierce Brosnan was a joy in Mamma Mia! and Christian Bale's performance as Batman in The Dark Knight has caught the attention of directors. And as for British director Chris Nolan? With The Dark Knight he is the first director to transform a traditional blockbuster into a thinking-person's film while breaking all box office records.
British talent excelling in Hollywood is not a new phenomenon. But as the downturn takes hold there are fewer roles and fewer quality films: that makes British success all the more striking.
I can't explain why British people are good at acting or directing or writing or being creative -- but the Americans have long accepted that they just are. The answer occurred to me as I talked to Chapman, who has broken through as a leading fashion designer: she told me with a laugh, "I don't think I could face going to a gym" -- not a view shared, I suspect, by the toned Americans in the room. Perhaps it's that distinctively British refusal to be cloned, an insistence on being individual, that sets our creatives apart.
Whatever it is, this summer, in New York, it's working.
This article was originally published by the London Evening Standard