MERYL Streep as Thatcher, Michelle Williams as Monroe, Leonardo Dicaprio as J. Edgar Hoover . . . it’s the season of charismatic central performances. And a couple of Colin Firth films have prompted further reflections from this column on the mysteries of perfect casting. How does it happen? Good luck? Good choices? It would be impossible now to imagine The King’s Speech (Sunday, 6.30pm, Showtime Premiere) without Firth playing the unhappy king, or for that matter, without Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist Lionel Logue — twin miracles of the casting director’s art.
Firth gives another mesmerising performance as the Dutch artist Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring (Saturday, 8.30pm and Sunday, 12.45pm, Movie Greats), based on Tracy Chevalier’s novel. Peter Webber’s handsome film recounts how Vermeer’s famous painting was supposedly inspired by his infatuation with a 17-year-old servant girl in his household (touchingly played by Scarlett Johansson). It was another of those happy casting combinations that turned out sublimely right.
John Malkovich’s uniquely potent, almost hypnotic screen presence was perhaps best demonstrated in Dangerous Liaisons and The Portrait of a Lady. Ripley’s Game (Sunday, 4.30am, Starpics) can be classed as a guilty pleasure. It is one of the best versions of a Patricia Highsmith novel, with Malkovich ideally cast as the silky-sinister aesthete Tom Ripley, up to his neck in dangerous deals and conspiracies. In Gary Sinise’s Of Mice and Men (Sunday, 2.30am, Starpics) — the 1992 remake of John Steinbeck’s novella — Malkovich was cast against type as Lennie, the sweet-natured simpleton, rather than George, his cunning and forthright protector (played by Sinise). Though not in the class of Lewis Milestone’s classic 1939 film, it remains a powerful and deeply moving account of Steinbeck’s Depression-era morality tale, with Malkovich in one of his strangest roles. I suspect his qualities as an actor — the icy demeanour, the saturnine brow, the libidinous hauteur — work only on the big screen. During the Sydney festival last year I saw him on stage in something called The Giacomo Variations, mumbling his way through a dismal account of the inner life of Casanova, set to bits of Mozart. A terrible disappointment.
I’d never thought of Ewan Mcgregor as anything but a bland performer, but he turned up trumps in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (Saturday, noon, Showtime Premiere). This fine, moody thriller (from a Robert Harris novel) is about a mysterious British prime minister, Adam Lang, who may or may not bear some resemblance to Tony Blair, and may or may not have been involved in a scandalous conspiracy. Mcgregor’s character takes the job of ghosting Lang’s memoirs and discovers his predecessor was washed up on a lonely beach after completing the first draft. Mcgregor has never been better. His character is nameless, but he dominates the film with his gutsiness, his implacable candour, his air of dour calculation.
For my favourite charismatic performance in recent years I’m tempted to nominate Christian Mckay’s dazzling impersonation of Orson Welles in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (Monday, 6am, Movie One). This is about Welles’s landmark production of Julius Caesar at New York’s Mercury Theatre in 1937 and the lives of the actors and hangers-on (fictional and otherwise) who took part.
Me and Orson Welles is a constant delight. But would it have worked without Mckay in the central role — brilliantly capturing that dangerous combination of bluster, genius and egomania that was to give us Citizen Kane and do much to revolutionise the American theatre?
Sunday, 2.30am, Starpics
Monday, 6am, Movie One
Sunday, 6.30pm, Showtime Premiere
Saturday, noon, Showtime Premiere
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech