This is the first article of Seventh Row’s series on emerging artists, Bright Young Things. We take a look at the career of Scottish actor Jack Lowden, now starring in Dunkirk and England Is Mine. Jack Lowden’s notable, earlier supporting roles include Denial and War & Peace.
Dunkirk, Jack Lowden’s breakout role
When Jack Lowden’s dapper RAF pilot, Collins, gets pulled out of his sinking plane in Dunkirk, he instantly turns on the charm to greet his rescuers with a debonair “Afternoon.” It’s a movie star moment, played by a virtual unknown. As one of two characters in the film’s “air” section, and the only one who gets to interact with the characters from land and sea, Collins has to singlehandedly uphold that rockstar RAF personality. It requires a hell of a lot of screen presence.
Jack Lowden’s role in Dunkirk is a technically demanding one, too, which could have misfired in lesser hands. While in the air, Collins is always on his own, confined to his cockpit. He has only his squadron leader (Tom Hardy) to talk to, though they never share a frame. The time pressures of the air sequences leave no room for a casual backstory. Instead, Lowden and Hardy establish a rapport through the pacing of their sparse, utilitarian dialogue. Lowden reads Collins’ comments about fuel consumption as pragmatic deliberations, the perfect contrast to Hardy’s quieter, risk-taking heroism.
Lowden’s calm under stress and Collins’ ability to make split-second decisions speaks to plenty of experience as a fighter pilot. He has survived many missions when the average life expectancy of men working his job is just a few minutes. Lowden’s eyes are always active, darting from side to side or narrowed and squeezed into deep concentration. Even when he’s forced to land in water, he doesn’t skip a beat. As the cockpit fills with water, there’s no panic. Collins just pounds harder on the stuck window, keeps thinking and working to find a solution.'Throughout his screen career, Jack Lowden has been working small miracles with supporting parts.'Click To Tweet
Jack Lowden’s knack for character work
Throughout his short but impressive screen career, Jack Lowden has been working small miracles with supporting parts. He always transforms these often underwritten parts into fully realized characters. For Lowden, there’s no moment too small, no comment or action that doesn’t require a reaction from his character. So much of what he does is in his reactions to what other people say: he’s a visibly thoughtful listener. It’s egoless work that reveals his roots on the stage, where an actor must be constantly in the moment. It’s only been six years since Lowden graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. But given the right opportunities, he has the potential to become a major talent.
Lowden’s theatre work
Lowden had acted in high school musicals, and after drama school, he went straight into a heavy-hitting stage career. His first professional role was as the lead in Black Watch (2011) at the National Theatre of Scotland. Many reviews of the Iraq war drama touted him as a star in the making. He then went straight to the West End as the lead, Eric Lidell, in Chariots of Fire. Adapted for the stage by Mike Bartlett, it was part of London’s 2012 Olympics celebration.
Lowden’s work in classical theatre
Having tried his hand at new plays, went back to the classics. Lowden took substantial supporting roles in Ibsen’s Ghosts (2013) and Sophocles’ Electra (2014). Both plays were directed by legends (Richard Eyre and Ian Rickson). He also starred opposite acting legends (Lesley Manville and Kristin Scott Thomas). Lowden picked up two of the most prestigious British stage awards (an Olivier and an Ian Charleson) for Ghosts. As Oswald, he even beat out Mark Gatiss’s exemplary turn as Menenius in Coriolanus. In the recoding of Ghosts, you can see why. Oswald is technically a supporting part, but the production feels like a pas-de-deux between Lowden and Manville. That was in 2014.
Jack Lowden’s scene-stealing turn in Denial
Lowden hasn’t been back on stage since, opting instead to take small but crucial supporting parts in film and television. Jack Lowden’s work in Denial (2016) as solicitor James Lisbon, protégé of Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), is particularly impressive. Lowden turns a walking plot device into a scene-stealing character. Calmly delivering acts, liberally using his hands for emphasis, he reveals his intelligence, ambition, and confidence. We can tell how much he respects Anthony and his mentorship because of his deferential manner. James also mimics Anthony’s strategies to control situations. He speaks softly and quickly, looking down or hugging his body to make himself smaller in deference.
Lowden reveals Lisbon‘s compassion for his client (Rachel Weisz) in part because when they walk into the courtroom, he keeps looking back at her to check how she’s doing. He’s collaborative because of how intently he listens to his colleagues and nods in support. And we know how little he thinks of holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) in the subtle exasperation and disgust he occasionally conveys in court. He otherwise maintains an implacable demeanour.'I have a theory that Lowden scored more screen time in DENIAL during the edit than was intended.'Click To Tweet
I have a theory that, in the edit of Denial, Jack Lowden scored more screen time in Denial than intended. Lowden gets reaction shots in scenes where he’s the only non-active participant. These are scenes that would work even if he weren’t there. In court, most shots of Weisz reacting are two-shots in which we can see Lowden reacting, too. There are enough Weisz closeups to indicate that the director shot the scene from multiple angles. Lowden proves too compelling to cut away from, even in the presence of immense talents like Weisz or Scott.
Jack Lowden’s early supporting roles on screen
Denial gives Lowden the biggest showcase of his supporting screen roles because he’s in so many scenes. But he’s been working similar magic since his first TV role in Mrs Biggs (2012). There, he shows surprising vulnerability as a playboy who’s just there to schtupp the leading lady. In The Tunnel (2013), Lowden’s wounded teenager Adam Roebuck is more than the attention-seeking brat that the script requires. With just a couple of scenes per episode, Lowden reveals Adam’s wisdom and quiet maturity. It’s especially obvious in how he interacts with his younger siblings, whom he parents more than he should have to.
Even in ’71 (2014), a film shot almost entirely from Gary’s (Jack O’Connell) perspective, meaning Lowden is often not very visible in the scenes in which he appears, he serves as a slightly cockier counterpoint to Gary. As the politician Anthony Benn in A United Kingdom (2016), he delivers a rousing speech and a lot of exposition — exuding authority, integrity, and compassion.'For Lowden, there’s no moment too small, no comment or action that doesn’t require a reaction.'Click To Tweet
Jack Lowden’s early starring roles on TV
Beyond bringing life to two-dimensional roles, Lowden’s other specialty on screen has been playing out complete coming-of-age arcs over the course of many years. Tommy’s Honour (2016) takes place over seven years: we meet Lowden’s Tommy Morris as a naive 17-year-old, and he dies as a widower and champion at 24. Similarly, Lowden’s young Steven Morrissey in England is Mine (2017) slowly evolves from an extremely introverted misanthrope to a man confident enough to start his musical career. Lowden plays one of the two leads in the World War I mini-series The Passing Bells (2014), in which each of the five episodes gives just a glimpse of life in each year of the war. The key events that cause his character’s transformation happen off-screen.This means Lowden plays a naive, adventure-seeking boy in the first episode, a battle-tested soldier by the second, and a battle-scarred one by the finale.
War & Peace
The importance of off-screen events in shaping characterization is most evident in Lowden’s turn as Nikolai in War & Peace (2016). Nikolai is a crucial character with relatively little screen time. Lowden once again plays a soldier with no idea what to expect, but his character matures physically, romantically, and emotionally. Nikolai’s main role in the plot is that he’s engaged to his penniless cousin, with whom he grew up, but his family has lost its fortune and depends on him to marry well. He rebels against his parents’ ruthless designs by invoking honour, something made all the easier by the soldier’s uniform he now wears.'Lowden’s Nikolai visibly grows and matures more than any other character in WAR & PEACE'Click To Tweet
Once we catch Nikolai out of battle near the end of the series (and the war), he’s grown into a chivalrous, self-confident man, aware of how childish his engagement promises were. Popping up for just a few scenes in each of the eight episodes, Lowden’s Nikolai visibly grows and matures more than any other character — mostly in the background. Nikolai is still the same person, a mix of boyish doting, carelessness, and good intentions. It’s the most impressive performance in a piece where the heartthrob Prince Andrei (James Norton) should be the centre of attention.