Actor-director-playwright Laura Anne Harris takes a look at five of the year’s best performances that deserve more attention: Rachel Weisz in The Lobster, Mahershala Ali and Andre Holland in Moonlight Margarite Breitkreiz in Marija and Rebecca Hall in Christine
During Awards season, flashy performances tend to get all the praise. Emma Stone’s soft shoe musical performance in La La Land is certainly garnering a lot of attention for her honesty and quirkiness, but her lack of musical theatre training shows. But there were some actors this year, in both leading and supporting roles, that deserve a closer look. Here are the top five underappreciated performances of 2016 that deserve our adoration. As it happens, all of these actors have strong theatrical training, and their technique translates to the screen.
5) Rachel Weisz in The Lobster
Of the many great performances in The Lobster, Colin Farrell’s as David, a recently divorced man looking for a life partner, has received the most attention: because he transformed physically, gaining a significant amount of weight for the role. (He also nailed the absurdist dialogue.) Yet Rachel Weisz, who has gone mostly overlooked, gives the standout performance of the film as the Short Sighted woman: she not only nails the deadpan delivery required of Lanthimos’ dialogue, but shows great emotional depth and character growth.
Well before we meet the Short Sighted Woman, she serves as the film’s robotic, monotone narrator. Weisz’s even-pitched voice soothes, yet her words are direct, dark, and absurd. Weisz is an expert at frankly reciting the vulgarity of her lines for great comedic effect: “That night, in my sleep, I dreamt that we lived in a big house together in the city with a large, well-lit kitchen, and I was wearing dark blue trousers and a tight cream blouse, and he took my clothes off and fucked me up the ass.”Weisz is an expert at frankly reciting the vulgarity of her lines for great comedic effect.Click To Tweet
Weisz is more emotive than Farrell in the film, and she has the ability to tap into some real vulnerability and urgency. Her physical acting sets her apart. In one of the film’s funniest moments, David and the Short Sighted Woman make out on a couch while the hosts of the house play a Spanish romp on guitar. Weisz loosens her body, and for the first time, gives flirty glances at Colin Farrell. When Weisz’ character goes to the doctor’s office, knowing she’s there to be blinded, she tries urgently to persuade the leader to let her leave through increased breath work, quickening her speech and nearly tearing up. The audience feels her terror.
Read more: Director Yorgos Lanthimos on the making of The Lobster >>
4) Mahershala Ali in Moonlight
Moonlight is one of the best films of the year because of its strong performances, two of which appear on my list. Mahershala Ali is an exceptionally trained New York University graduate who is capable of physicalizing his character’s emotional journey and his socio-economic background. For instance, Ali has a supporting role in Hidden Figures, where he shows the bearing of a soldier through his tight and upright body; it’s as if he went through tough physical training. In Moonlight, Ali not only plays the background of his character, Juan, but taps into big emotional cues deep down in his guts. His kinesthetic responses, the awareness of the position and movement of his body, create a strong visceral experience for the viewer.Mahershala Ali builds a character particularly with his upper body, his walk, and his eyes.Click To Tweet
Ali builds a character particularly with his upper body, his walk, and his eyes. He swaggers on screen as Juan, the extremely likeable and charming mentor/drug dealer, a real old-fashioned gentleman. When he befriends and advises the young Chiron, he exudes warmth through the tenderness of his voice, which is reassuring and uplifting. Ali can be big and brash in his struts down the boardwalk, but he also internalizes his energy. For instance, when Juan meets Chiron’s mother, Paula (the commanding Naomie Harris), for the first time, Ali becomes still and softens his eye contact. Juan doesn’t want to alarm Chiron’s mother of Chiron’s absence or intrude on her life. He also makes himself physically smaller by rounding his shoulders a little and quieting his voice.With the dip or rise of his chest, Mahershala Ali demonstrates pain, joy, or vulnerability.Click To Tweet
At first, Ali is loose in his body and easy going, but over time, he lets Juan’s vulnerabilities show. When he confronts Paula about her use of crack cocaine, Ali displays a harder aggressive side. When Paula calls Juan a hypocrite — he too is part of the drug economy — Ali reveals Juan’s anger and pain with just a change or flicker in his eyes. With the dip or rise of his chest, Ali demonstrates pain, joy, or vulnerability.
3) Margarite Breitkreiz in Marija
This small German film from director Michael Koch had a resounding effect on me thanks to its lead, veteran stage actor Margarite Breitkreiz. Breitkreiz plays Marija, a new Russian immigrant living in Germany who is saving up to open her own hair salon and gain financial independence. Breitkreiz stays true to the character and her struggle to find a place in her community; she doesn’t put on any airs or have any flashy melancholic moments. This was possible in part because Breitkreiz collaborated with director Koch on the dialogue in the film. But she also brought emotional honesty to Marija through the way she used her eyes.Margarite Breitkreiz communicates her character’s objectives with the intensity of her eyes. Click To Tweet
Breitkreiz communicates her character’s objectives with the intensity of her eyes. She’s stone-faced throughout the film: she wants to succeed without showing weakness. When Marija wants something, Breitkreiz focuses with her eyes and never wavers. For instance, when her landlord finally confronts her about paying her overdue rent, she fights back, staring him down. Then, Breitkreiz makes a deliberate pause, looking at the ground for several seconds, with the audience unsure of her motivations. Once she decides to perform a sexual favour for her landlord in exchange for missed rent — she must protect her goals at all costs — Breitkreiz changes her eye focus to his pants and never looks back at his face.
On the rare occasions when Marija lets her guard down, Breitkreiz portrays her as playful, tender, and charming. Her body becomes looser as she begins a romantic relationship with her new boss, Georg (Georg Friedrich). However, Marjia cannot allow love in her life to stand in the way of her plans, which is why this character is a bit sad. Underneath Marija’s cold exterior is a woman who deeply wants to be loved and accepted by her community. That tension is depicted so honestly by Breitkreiz when she goes to apologize to Georg for stealing his money to open her hair salon. The intensity of Breitkreiz’ eye contact is still present, but it is also mixed with guilt and sadness.
2) Andre Holland in Moonlight
There is an adage in acting that you’re only as good as your scene partner. In the third act of Moonlight, it’s Andre Holland, as the adult Kevin, who does the heavy lifting opposite actor Trevante Rhodes as Black, which elevates Rhodes’ performance. The art of acting is in the reacting. A great actor with a strong technical background in theatre like Holland forces Rhodes to react to his strong choices. It creates a magnetic scene on screen.A great actor like Andre Holland forces Trevante Rhodes to react to his strong choices. Click To Tweet
Holland is a master at subtly revealing his character’s motivations through shifting the tone and volume of his voice, his proximity to Rhodes, and more. In their scenes together, Holland’s Kevin repeatedly shifts his behaviour toward Black: sometimes he’s accusatory; sometimes he’s grounded; at other moments, he flirts.Holland is a master at subtly revealing his character’s motivations through shifting the tone and volume of his voice.Click To Tweet
Part of what I think Kevin wants from Black is for him to open up and be honest about his sexuality and who he is as a person. Rhodes gives into Holland’s advances, softening his hard exterior, laughing, blushing, and revealing some of the pain that has been buried deep. At one point at Kevin’s apartment, Rhodes tears up because Kevin is so grounded when he speaks honestly about being happy in one’s own truth.
1) Rebecca Hall in Christine
Hall is unrecognizable as the notorious news reporter Christine Chubbuck who famously killed herself on live network news in the early 1970s. Hall doesn’t aim to imitate Christine’s mannerisms; she only watched a few taped recordings of Christine in preparation. Instead, Hall used her imagination to make specific acting choices to suit her understanding of the character.Rebecca Hall slouches her tall posture and greatly alters her voice to a deeper mid-west accent.Click To Tweet
Hall goes through an incredible physical transformation to become Christine. She slouches her tall posture, greatly alters her voice to a deeper mid-west accent, and changes her gait to become awkward as if her legs are too long for her body. She lacks grace and stumbles down the street, unsure of herself. Hall depicts a stiff and defensive woman with the furrow of her brow. Her arms sag and hang out of place.
It’s Hall’s eye movements, especially, that draw the audience closer to Christine to either sympathize with her, pity her, or make us uncomfortable because we recognize the awkward situations she finds herself in. Hall quickens her eye movements in awkward moments, such as when she is asked out on a date by her co-anchor George (Michael C. Hall). And it’s through her aggressive eye contact that she shows her resolve and focus when talking to her boss, Michael (Tracy Letts).Through aggressive eye contact, Rebecca Hall shows Christine's resolve and focus.Click To Tweet
Hall ultimately succeeds because she fully invest in the character’s emotional journey. For instance, when Christine conducts a mundane interview with a chicken farmer, Hall makes snarky off-colour jokes and laughs loudly and brashly. Yet Hall makes this woman so likeable and relatable that it’s hard to look away even in her most vulnerable moments. Similarly, by depicting Christine’s moments of severe depression, she brings the viewer closer to the character’s sense of despair, which is incredibly moving. At one point, Christine hits a breaking point and yells at her mother. I felt like I was watching myself, in my most desperate moments, portrayed on screen. Rebecca Hall’s performance sheds a light on the realities of depression — an important step for helping the public to understand struggles with mental illness and lessen the stigmas.