8 June 2011
“We had faces then,” Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) famously tells Joe Gillis (William Holden) as she reminisces about the good old days of silent film in Sunset Boulevard (1950). Most of the time I agree with her. But sometimes an actor stands out not just for her acting skills but an unusual face that conveys much more than the easily palatable prettiness we get with all those Katherine Heigls and Rachel McAdams. For me, one of those great faces is Samantha Morton’s.
The first time I saw her was in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown (1999) as Hattie, a mute woman who forms a relationship with the jazz guitarist Emmet Ray (Sean Penn). Sweet and lowdown, indeed. Because she couldn’t speak, Morton expressed everything using that big face — those translucent eyes, that broad forehead. She came to love Emmet: not only because he fed her that big plate of lobster, and not only because he loved claiming to be the second-greatest jazz guitarist in the world (darn that Gypsy, Django Reinhardt, who always seemed to beat him out). They were perfect for one another, really; it’s just too bad he couldn’t see it. Morton played the role for comedic effect (and I’d love to see her do more of that) but what made her so poignant was the way she could express cartoony versions of love and glee and sadness while still being so magically real. I wasn’t the only one who noticed her — she won a London Film Circle Award for best supporting actor, as well as a pile of nominations from other institutions and festivals.
Then there was Minority Report (2002), in which she played the otherworldly Agatha, a human “precog” used solely for her unusual ability for pre-cognition — seeing the future — in a dystopian universe in which the police solve crimes that have not yet occurred. Agatha’s head was shaved, which only exaggerated Morton’s haunting and unusual beauty. She had only the tiniest role, really — mostly, she lay in that pool of gloopy muck — yet when I think of that film, I mostly think of her. One could see how much Agatha had been abused by a police state eager to utilize her gifts.
But as much as those early films highlighted what an effect she could have virtually without speaking, it was in Lynne Ramsay’s beautiful Morvern Callar (2002), based on the Alan Warner novel, that I started to notice how much Morton could really do. From descriptions of her true life story — Morton survived foster homes as a child and troubled relationships as a teen — one wonders whether she can convey the silent depths of pain so effectively because she’s been on the receiving end since the age of seven. Ramsay knew what she had; just look at this trailer, which gives a sense of how much Morton does in that film:
Morton has received acting awards and nominations in piles for virtually every project she’s undertaken since the age of 20 — and at the age of 32 she directed her first TV film, The Unloved (about children in England’s care system), to more acclaim. She explained in interviews that it was no accounting of her own experience, but a project she undertook because “I came horribly, dangerously, massively close to not surviving,” she told the Mail Online. She’d been thinking about this project since the age of 16, when she read a newspaper article about girls who went from care into prostitution. Deeply affected by the story, she and the other participants in the Nottingham Television Workshop developed scenes and characters for such a dramatization, and it’s remained on her mind ever since. She wanted to show “the aspect of loneliness, of just being forgotten as a child or fighting a bureaucratic system,” she explained in 2009.
She’s filming for a David Cronenberg film now, Cosmopolis, for a 2012 release date. Looking forward to it, Sam, as well as your second directorial feature — whatever it might be.