Among the performances vying for shiny gongs at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, there are a special few who have somehow escaped all the bright lights and hoopla. A handful of female stars have quietly made a spectacular job of playing unconventional roles in unusual films that have not hit the headlines, nor even drawn great crowds to the cinema.
Kristen Stewart is nominated for playing Diana, Princess of Wales in the little-discussed, daring Spencer, while a favourite to beat her is Jessica Chastain, cast as the extravagant American television evangelist in The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
But there is another Jessica, Ireland’s own Jessie Buckley, who also has a good chance of walking away with a golden statuette on Sunday. Her portrayal of a discontented young mother in The Lost Daughter, nominated in the best supporting actress category, has been hailed by critics as a crucial and mesmeric component of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s disturbing film.
Observer film critic Wendy Ide is among those who believes Buckley deserves serious Oscar consideration for a performance that “once again demonstrates that she is one of the most exciting actors of her generation”.
Quiet though Buckley’s performance may be, the Oscar ceremony’s glittering and raucous fuss will mark an extraordinary blossoming of her career. The 32-year-old from a big, unpretentious family in County Kerry is now increasingly in demand both on stage and in front of the camera. Theatre and film directors are clearly drawn to working with a star who has such a beguilingly off-centre charisma. It seems an effortless quality and is especially valuable in an actor who can also communicate high-voltage emotion.
In The Lost Daughter, Gyllenhaal’s uncomfortable look at the paralysing challenges of motherhood, Buckley plays the younger Leda, a character played in later life by Olivia Colman. Playing opposite Buckley in her flashback scenes is Jack Farthing, who was already a friend. Now, after working together, Farthing is also a big fan of her talent.
“I could write a book of nice things about her,” he said this weekend. “She just brought so much love and truth and commitment to that film. She is an extraordinary actor. Instinctive, authentic and free: the kind that elevates your own work immediately, and teases out the same openness and vulnerability that she brings.”
If Buckley fails to claim her Oscar this time – if it goes instead to the Bafta-winning Ariana DeBose for her startling turn in West Side Story – all Buckley will need is patience. After all, it has worked for her before.
In 2008, she was the “nearly girl” in a very public way when she was runner-up to Jodie Prenger in the BBC television talent show I’d Do Anything. The series was designed to pluck out an unknown to play the role of Nancy in a London production of Lionel Bart’s stage musical Oliver!. Impressing the judges, who included Denise van Outen and Barry Humphries, Buckley was eventually pipped to the post when the results of the viewers’ vote came in.
How sweet it must be now then for the actor to finally be hailed as a West End star after her recent performance as Sally Bowles in the musical Cabaret. For Susannah Clapp, the Observer’s theatre critic, Buckley’s supreme skill was in making each of her songs “an individual drama” – so much so that she appeared to “have written them herself”.
For the Financial Times’s critic, Buckley’s “raw, desolate, defiant” Bowles was “career-defining”. Her rendition of the famous title song, the review continued, “rips away all expectations of cheery resilience” and was “like watching someone break down before you”.
The journey from rejection to such acclaim has been tough. Buckley, she has said, had only applied to take part in the talent show on the rebound after failing to get a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. When Prenger, rather than her, was given the role of Nancy, she stepped back into the shadows and took a range of jobs, working as a shop assistant and as a jazz singer at the swish Mayfair nightclub Annabel’s in order to stay in London.
Her family back in Ireland were not worried, she has said. Her mother, Marina, a vocal coach, and her father, Tim, were just pleased to have more space in the house. “Oh Jesus, they were delighted – there are five of us, after all, so it was more: ‘Thank God one’s left the home.’
“They were incredibly supportive. They always told all of us not to be afraid because even if you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, at least you’re experiencing something.”
Buckley’s decision to audition for drama school once again, this time for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, took courage, but it paid off: “I’d had to grow up pretty quickly and going back to drama school gave me a chance to be with people my own age and do normal things, like going to a pub on a Friday night and just hanging out.”
The Buckley path to fame built steadily from there. TV audiences will perhaps have first recognised her face from the BBC One drama Taboo, where she starred opposite Tom Hardy as the widow Lorna Bow. (“I absolutely loved playing that character,” she has said, “because she had her own ambition and gave as good as she got.”) Or possibly in Peter Moffat’s The Last Post, where she was cast as a young army wife posted to Aden in the mid-1960s. Or they may have admired her in an adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s tale The Woman in White.
But it was in the 2016 big-budget television serialisation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in a lineup of young talent that included Lily James, Tuppence Middleton and James Norton, that Buckley’s slow-burn presence really gave off some heat. She played Marya Bolkonskaya, the calm, wise soul who for some is the moral centre of the novel.
Two important relationships were the legacy of the acclaimed series. Buckley went on to star in her breakthrough film, Wild Rose, with War and Peace’s director, Tom Harper, and she also became Norton’s partner for a couple of years.
Observer film critic Mark Kermode, who had admired her “electrifying” performance in the Channel Islands-set thriller Beast, was one of many delighted to see her in the lead role of “firebrand” and hopeful country singer Rose-Lynn Harlan in Harper’s film.
Her portrayal, as the headstrong, cowboy boot-wearing daughter of Julie Walters’s Marion, reaches “out from the screen and grabs the audience by the throat”, Kermode wrote, adding: “Brilliantly, she manages simultaneously to convey both boisterous confidence and searing self-doubt, rooting her character’s chin-forward recklessness in an underlying sense of confusion about her purpose and destiny.”
Those who were slower to catch the Buckley habit will surely have begun to recognise her face when she appeared as a distraught wife in the terrifying drama series Chernobyl. In this grim role, inevitably, there was little sign of Buckley’s customary lopsided grin, but her pain seemed all too real.
For Buckley connoisseurs, performances to savour include the dry humour of the lead role in Charlie Kaufman’s 2020 film I’m Thinking of Ending Things, in which she plays opposite Jesse Plemons, who has also been recognised on Sunday with a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his role as Benedict Cumberbatch’s kinder brother in The Power of the Dog.
And, again almost under the radar, Buckley wowed many British theatre critics during lockdown with her stage portrayal of the most famous young heroine of them all, Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. With Josh O’Connor cast as Romeo in a filmed-for-television National Theatre production, Buckley persuaded seasoned Observer critic Clapp that she was one of the better Juliets she has ever watched.
She wrote: “Jessie Buckley is completely absorbed and absorbing, prophetically fearful (her ‘fiery-footed steeds’ sound as if they are dragging a hearse), laying her soul as bare as her makeup-free face.”
Whether or not that Oscar ends up in Irish arms tonight, the sensible money still says the award will land there before too many more years have passed.