Top 10 Performances of 2015 — Actress

Having already construed a list of the best male performances (which you can read here), as I agonise over who to include in my female selection I think it is fair to say 2015 was the year of the actress. Sure, the guys were great, but the depth of superb performances from the women of film was quite astonishing.

And that depth incorporated numerous genres too, from summer blockbusters to low-key dramas. It’s clear that Hollywood still has a significant way to go in terms of achieving true diversity behind the camera as well as in front of it, but until then at least those who have been given an opportunity are waving that equality flag by way of their respective bodies of work.

It will be the same format as before: five leading performances and five supporting performances. As always, this list is based on UK release dates.

Leading Roles

5. Marion Cotillard — Macbeth

Forgive my lack of knowledge on Shakespeare’s famous play; there is a scene towards of the end of Justin Kurzel’s visceral silver screen adaptation that pits Marion Cotillard front and centre, the camera unwilling to manoeuvre too far from her sorrowful face as the actress hauntingly laments the preceding brutality that her character helped concoct. By many accounts, Lady Macbeth’s role in proceedings is not as prominent as it ought to be, but that scene is the stand out moment and Cotillard, arguably, the stand out performer.

Macbeth - Cotillard & Fassbender

4. Rooney Mara — Carol

It is fairly common knowledge on the awards circuit that Rooney Mara — backed by Harvey Weinstein — has been campaigning as a supporting actress, but those who have seen Carol will know her role in the film is a leading one. She spends as much time on-screen as her classy counterpart Cate Blanchett who, for my money, Mara actually outshines. Therese, young and therefore still unravelling her place in 1950s New York, is the more relatable of the two and Mara plays the shop assistant with such generosity and innocence it is practically impossible not to get wrapped up in her story.

Carol - Rooney Mara

3. Emily Blunt — Sicario

Violent cartels, corporate bureaucracy and untamed revenge dominate Sicario, and Emily Blunt’s capable FBI agent gets caught up in it all. She is our eyes and ears throughout, unfairly treated by the macho lot supposedly on her side yet unwavering in her quest for answers and, ultimately, justice. Blunt had a very good 2014 playing Rita Vrataski in Edge of Tomorrow; Kate Macer shares Vrataski’s endurance, but she also bears a genuine vulnerability that only serves to enhance her humane traits in an inhumane world.

Sicario - Emily Blunt

2. Felicity Jones — The Theory of Everything

Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar at the start of the year but it could easily have been Felicity Jones clutching the iconic trophy and charmingly stumbling her way through a speech. Unlike her co-star Eddie Redmayne’s overtly physical portrayal of Stephen Hawking, Jones’ appearance as wife Jane is imbued in subtlety and inner anguish. While you would expect to be naturally drawn to Redmayne’s face, it is actually Jones who commands your attention — her expressions vary by scene, telling a story and rendering words irrelevant in the process.

The Theory of Everything - Jones

1. Saoirse Ronan — Brooklyn

Speaking of facial expressions, there was nobody better in 2015 at relaying meaning through eye movement than Saoirse Ronan. The supporting cast, the screenplay, the setting, the direction — it is all there and it is all very good. But Brooklyn is Ronan’s movie and she rinses every emotional fibre out of every second she has on-screen. In Eilis, Nick Hornby’s screenplay funds a beautiful character; Ronan gives her depth and richness. How often have we bore witness to failed romantic endeavours on film? To false partnerships fuelled by an over-eagerness to retread well-worn paths? Brooklyn avoids that trap by focusing not just on its protagonist’s relationship status, but on Eilis’ actual life too. It’s all about the Irish immigrant and as such the film rests entirely on Ronan’s shoulders. Her acting muscles more than support the weight.

Brooklyn - Saoirse Ronan

Supporting Roles

5. Rebecca Ferguson — Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation

Unknown quantity Rebecca Ferguson sprung onto the scene towards the end of a blockbuster heavy summer, and in Rogue Nation she seems to be relishing every minute. Affording the action genre some much-needed female flair alongside the likes of Daisy Ridley and Charlize Theron (it pained me to leave Theron off the previous list), Ferguson exchanges wit and brawn with Tom Cruise and more than holds her own. She has been cast — alongside Emily Blunt, no less — in the highly anticipated Girl on the Train adaptation, and with justification.

Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation - Rebecca Ferguson

4. Jessica Chastain — Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro’s Victorian splendour-piece divided opinion upon release. I liked it, and a lot of that had to do with Jessica Chastain’s chilly turn as plotting sister Lucille (come on, even her name denotes bad news). She maintains an eerie distance throughout the movie, seemingly ambivalent to the romance between her brother (Tom Hiddleston) and his muse, played by Mia Wasikowska. Of course when the you-know-what inevitably hits the fan, Chastain unleashes a furore that has you grinning and then grimacing.

Crimson Peak - Jessica Chastain

3. Kate Winslet — Steve Jobs

In an interview with Wittertainment captain Simon Mayo, Kate Winslet revealed just how dense Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs screenplay was, though admitted her co-star Michael Fassbender had the toughest challenge given his ever-present showing. As Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ personal adviser of sorts, Winslet’s words often carry a practicality born out of fondness for the ideas man. She is only person throughout the film whose appearance normalises Jobs; as he is knocking back all other individuals with undisguised hostility, you still find yourself invested his relationship with Hoffman and a lot of that is down to Winslet’s receptive allure.

Steve Jobs - Kate Winslet

2. Alicia Vikander — Ex Machina

A number of test sessions act as a segmented pivot from which Ex Machina’s ideas are spun and examined, interviews designed to analyse an android’s capacity for humanness. The android in question is Ava, played with uncanny stoicism by Alicia Vikander: she somehow looks like both a robot and a human, and somehow acts with both an artificial and authentic inclination too (“She moves with odd mechanical smoothness and glides with inhuman grace”). Vikander draws us in under a guise of mystery and does not relent until it is too late. We’ve been had — brilliantly.

Ex Machina - Alicia Vikander 3

1. Fiona Glascott — Brooklyn

I think any supporting player worth their salt should seek to achieve two things: remain present and effective in auxiliary scenes, and inject the overall story or main character with added substance. The second of those is especially important, and it’s something that Fiona Glascott does poignantly. She plays Eilis’ older sister who remains in Ireland while her sibling traverses the Atlantic. The pair share a few quietly moving moments pre-trip and although Glascott does not figure an awful lot thereafter (apart from a dinner scene bursting with suppressed grief), her presence constantly lingers over the movie. It appears the actress won’t be formally recognised at the Oscars, which is a shame. We’ll always have John Crowley’s film though, and that is indelible.

Brooklyn - Fiona Glascott

Images credit: Collider, The Telegraph

Images copyright (©): A24Focus Features, Fox Searchlight PicturesLionsgate, Paramount PicturesStudioCanal, Universal StudiosThe Weinstein Company

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Brooklyn (2015)

★★★★

Brooklyn PosterDirector: John Crowley

Release Date: November 4th, 2015 (US); November 6th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson

When we first meet Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) she is about to work a shift for store owner Miss Kelly — aptly nicknamed Nettles Kelly, played with spite by Bríd Brennan — who apparently enjoys making the young Irish lass’ life a misery. So when Eilis’ local priest sets in motion a plan that’ll take her across the pond, you expect to see a burst of excitement, relief even, emanate from our protagonist. Yet the prevailing emotion is guilt, over leaving her mother and older sister, over leaving her home, even over leaving her downbeat customer service job.

And this guilt never truly dissipates at any point during Brooklyn, John Crowley’s richly romantic immigrant drama. A shipmate on the stomach-lurching trip to the US manifests as a friendly face full of relaxing advice: “The mistake was coming home from America in the first place”. Her caring attitude reminds us of Eilis’ older sister Rose, who is movingly played by Fiona Glascott. Glascott, along with Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen, should be a main player during the upcoming awards season.

Upon arriving in Brooklyn, Eilis begins work as a seller in an upmarket department store, supervised by Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré) who fits somewhere between Nettles Kelly and The Devil Wears Prada’s Anne Hathaway on the strict spectrum. Eilis quickly realises she is an errant tadpole swimming in a giant urban ocean. She’s just a normal girl after all, someone who yawns at church and rolls her eyes when discussing boys. Yves Bélanger inserts a few mirror shots of Eilis, her reflection lost and alone amongst a rabble of strangers, their faces either hidden from view or burry.

She is scared to commit, perhaps a consequence of her rough separation from Ireland — an emotional packing scene between her and Rose is subtly powerful — or maybe because she is unsure of herself in this grand new world. However everything changes after two key events: the obvious, her meeting Tony Fiorello (Cohen), and the less obvious, a reaffirming experience at a holiday dinner for the homeless (Irish immigrants who built America, who founded opportunity for millions of others though their unselfish hard graft). At times Nick Hornby’s screenplay dabbles in romantic extremes, and when one of the immigrants sings a familiar song that leaves Eilis in tears, your sentimental barometer rages.

Tony doesn’t talk much because he loves listening to Eilis’ voice. He’s like James Dean, only less rebellious, and has the perfectly poised wavy hairdo and charming, cocky grin to match. The chemistry between the two sparks with authenticity, thanks in no small part to both actors. Cohen is readymade for 50s living and the manner in which he carefully interrogates his muse is unflinchingly amiable. Ronan is also excellent, for the most part reigning in her exterior while also managing to evoke an entire range of emotions, from longing to hope, and despair to joy.

We meet Tony’s youngest brother at a Fiorello family dinner, the kid a comedic firecracker with slapstick sensibilities. Laughs arrive on fairly regular basis throughout Brooklyn and the vast majority of them are mined around the dinner table (Crowley and co. could be on to a new subgenre). As head of the boarding where Eilis stays during her time in New York, Julie Walters is frequently the pivot from which laughter swings, often humorously shutting down the film’s very own ugly sisters — they’re actually beautiful, and not related — who constantly spew mischievous mealtime jibes.

Eilis’ commitment issues are especially highlighted in the presence of Tony, though she never looks disconnected, just slightly standoffish. We will her to take the plunge, not through malice, but because the pair are clearly meant to be together. The idealistic core that shapes their relationship reflects Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne’s rapport in The Theory of Everything. It’s not physical thing, nor even an emotional one; there is a sensitive pressure surrounding Jones and Redmayne’s companionship that isn’t necessarily prevalent here. Rather, both partnerships evoke a pleasant tenderness and both are as far from saccharine as is possible.

As Eilis’ confidence grows, her happiness shoots up and her outfits become brighter. Just as she is riding the crest of an enormously positive wave, a significant event sends the water crashing. We revisit Ireland and meet another potential love interest in Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). Those who have seen the trailer will know about Jim’s appearance, though upon spending some time with Tony you begin to wonder exactly how Brooklyn is going to successfully introduce a serviceable competitor for Eilis’ affections. Well it does, and the casting of the intrinsically unlikeable Domhnall Gleeson is why. Gleeson, by the way, seemingly repels poor films.

We revisit the theme of guilt born out of love and loneliness: when Eilis returns to Ireland everyone wants her to stay. To marry. To work. Distance can be both an enemy and a friend. Unfortunately the enemy consistently lingers like a spectre whereas the friend only visits fleetingly. From a tadpole in an ocean, back in Ireland Eilis looks like a misplaced New Yorker. She now has two homes and misses them both.

There is nothing flashy going on in Brooklyn, which is testament to John Crowley’s trust in the material — a solid screenplay, an unobtrusive score, a talented cast. The material, as it transpires, is delightful.

Brooklyn - Emory Cohen & Saoirse Ronan

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate, Fox Searchlight Pictures