In 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.
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.
The role 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, with only his squadron leader (Tom Hardy) to talk to, though they never share a frame. The time pressures of being a pilot leave no room for the kind of casual backstory provided for the film’s land and sea characters. 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 who 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
Throughout the entirety of his short but impressive screen career, Jack Lowden has been working small miracles with (often underwritten) supporting parts, whom he transforms 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 the kind of egoless work you’d expect from someone who got his start on the stage, where an actor must be constantly in the moment, responding to the action. 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 had acted in high school musicals, and after drama school, he went straight into a heavy-hitting stage career. His first professional role was in 2011 as the star of the Iraq war drama Black Watch at the National Theatre of Scotland and on tour. He then went straight to the West End as the lead, Eric Lidell, in Chariots of Fire, adapted for the stage by Mike Bartlett as part of London’s 2012 Olympics celebration.
Having tried his hand at new plays, Lowden took substantial supporting roles in Ibsen’s Ghosts (2013) and Sophocles’ Electra (2014), each directed by legends (Richard Eyre and Ian Rickson) and starring opposite legends (Lesley Manville and Kristin Scott Thomas). His talents were noticed: Lowden picked up two of the most prestigious British stage awards (an Olivier and an Ian Charleson) for his Oswald in Ghosts, even beating out Mark Gatiss’ exemplary turn as Menenius in Coriolanus. Ghosts was recorded, and 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.
Lowden hasn’t been back on stage since, opting instead to take small but crucial supporting parts in film and television. His work in Denial (2016) as solicitor James Lisbon, protégé of Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), is particularly impressive because Lowden turns a walking plot device into a scene-stealing character. From the calm and direct way he delivers facts, liberally using his hands for emphasis, we know he’s intelligent, ambitious, and confident — but not arrogant. We can tell he’s learned from Anthony from his deferential manner and the way he mimics Anthony’s strategies to control situations — speaking softly and quickly, looking down or hugging his body to make himself smaller in deference. We know Lisbon has 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. We know he’s collaborative because of how intently he listens to his colleagues and nods in support. And we see just how little he thinks of holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) in the subtle exasperation and disgust he occasionally conveys in court amidst an otherwise 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 Lowden scored more screen time in Denial during the edit than was ever intended by its writer or director. Lowden gets reaction shots in scenes where he’s the only non-active participant, 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 – but Lowden is too compelling to cut away from, even in the presence of immense talents like Weisz or Scott.
Denial gives Lowden the biggest showcase of his supporting screen roles because of the sheer number of scenes he appears in. But he’s been working similar magic since his first TV role in Mrs Biggs (2012), where he finds a surprising vulnerability in a playboy who’s just there to schtupp and complicate the life of the leading lady. With just a couple of scenes per episode in The Tunnel (2013), his wounded teenager Adam Roebuck is more than the attention-seeking brat that the script requires: Lowden gives a wisdom and quiet maturity to Adam’s gestures towards his younger siblings, whom he’s been tasked to care for a bit too often. 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
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. Although he plays one of the two leads in the World War I mini-series The Passing Bells (2014), it’s structured so that 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.
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.