A sensitive, geeky youth, stuck on a lonely cattle ranch, might understandably yearn for a kindly uncle figure; someone to confide in, or be mentored by. But the companionship actor Benedict Cumberbatch offers his brother’s stepson, Peter, in the widely Oscar-tipped western Power of the Dog is a very long, precarious horse ride away from anything avuncular.
In fact, Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the emotionally thwarted Phil Burbank is a study in twisted misery. In one early scene, Burbank notices some fragile paper flowers the teenager has made to decorate a dinner table at his mother’s canteen. But, instead of praising them, “Uncle Phil” is driven to publicly sneer.
Cumberbatch’s nasty, tortured performance is one of a choice selection of unhappy and warped souls played by British stars and vying for awards this season. Olivia Colman’s haunted, guilty mother in The Lost Daughter is also being hailed as one of the top screen appearances of the year.
Last week, both stars and both films dominated nominations for the influential upcoming Golden Globes and Critics’ Circle awards, seen as bellwethers for the Academy Awards in Los Angeles in late March.
Leda, Colman’s character in The Lost Daughter, is choked by memories of her maternal failures and observes all the family activity around her during a Greek island holiday with a toxic mix of pain and panic. The Washington Post has acknowledged Colman’s “shattering” handling of a woman “who is spikily self-protective and deeply vulnerable”, and admires her skill at driving scenes that are “a chamber piece of passive-aggressive subtext”.
The film is based on a novel by the Italian author Elena Ferrante and is a directorial debut for established anglophile actor Maggie Gyllenhaal, who also wrote the screenplay. Colman has revealed that what she first liked about the script was the moral messiness it afforded an actor.
For Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw, the treacherous nature of Colman’s mental landscape is the key to the film’s success.
“What is great about Colman’s performance is that it is always teetering on the brink of some new revelation about Leda: her face is subtly trembling with … what? Tears? Laughter? A scowl of scorn?” he wrote.
There is clearly a very strong appetite for bleak nuance in current American entertainment, typified in long-running popular television series such as Ozark and Fargo. These dark, dark stories stand at the other end of the streaming spectrum to jolly hit shows such as Bridgerton or Emily in Paris, but they obviously also meet a public need. They paint in a shady palette that suits actors who are relaxed about complexity and contradiction.
Nick James, former editor of Sight and Sound magazine, wonders if the “otherness” of British stars can also operate as a shortcut, or at least a shorthand, so that the American viewer knows this is a character they should be worried about. “It’s possibly also that the current need to therapise the bad guys, to give them a broken home type motivation (as in Joker), requires that the US audience detect strangeness in them. Brits are strangeness in this context,” he said.
When director Jeymes Samuel, also known as The Bullitts, wanted to cast a perturbing presence in the role of a cowboy who is capable of not just killing but of carving a cross into the forehead of a boy, he turned to Britain’s Idris Elba, who cloaks his British otherness in this film by playing the part in a Texan drawl. Whether audiences know that Elba is British or not, Samuel’s western The Harder They Fall, which was released on Netflix last month, is both violent and entertaining.
This can be an uncomfortable combination for some performers and yet falls easily within Elba’s range. So it seems that, when Hollywood needs an actor who can communicate dubious motivation, not to say downright cruel dysfunction, Britain is now the place to look.
The final episode of series three of Succession, which aired on both sides of the Atlantic to great acclaim last week, only confirms the trend, with its malign central patriarch Logan Roy, played by Scot Brian Cox. The American market in perverse screen anti-heroes has, for now, been cornered.
James views this hit series – which was conceived by Jesse Armstrong, British creator of Peep Show, and written by a team that includes acclaimed British playwrights Lucy Prebble and Lucy Kirkwood – as an example of true cultural cross-fertilisation, with British voices providing much of the expertly trained malevolence.
“There’s something about the difference between British and American satire, where ours is more vicious and theirs is usually relatively polite/toothless,” he said. “Succession is the exception, which makes me think the presence of British actors allows American productions to go deeper and darker. American actors would worry such roles would damage their careers.”
This is not to undervalue the vile poison that emanates from siblings Shiv and Roman Roy, played by Australian actor Sarah Snook and American actor Kieran Culkin. But for sheer seething ambiguity, it would be hard to trump the performance given by British actor Matthew Macfadyen as the wounded but scheming Tom Wambsgans.
The tradition of allowing a British actor to represent untrustworthiness is, of course, as old as Hollywood. A clipped English accent has often been the marker of evil on screen, and particularly in opposition to an American man or woman of action. From James Mason in North by Northwest to George Sanders’s rolling vowels as Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, the key Manichean struggles played out in American cinema have repeatedly located the devil as the product of the public school system in the south of England.
Across American culture, since the war of independence, the British have stood, at some subconscious level, for duplicity as well as for the alarming affectations of book-learning. It is probably significant that Colman’s Leda is an academic researching her next book, and Cumberbatch’s Burbank is described as a former scholastic talent who has since fallen low.
His character makes the perfect contrast to the warmer, chaotic and depressive emotions laid out so plainly by Kirsten Dunst, who plays Peter’s mother, Burbank’s brother’s bride. Her arrival in this carefully balanced world of anguish is the straw that threatens to break everything apart.
Director Jane Campion based her film on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. It is a book admired by Annie Proulx and it shares the themes of repressed sexuality in a brutal, macho world, that were to recur in her later book, Brokeback Mountain. Phil Burbank is described by Savage as someone who “had loathed the world, should it loathe him first”, and Cumberbatch nails this protective reflex, stoking the narrative with what the New York Times calls “virtuosic control”.
If doling out all these unpleasant roles to British stars looks like a backhanded compliment, with its roots in years of simmering contempt, it matters little to the actors concerned. Cumberbatch and Colman are likely to find themselves saluted by their peers when the awards are given out this winter. It may be a bit of stereotyping that has become self-fulfilling, but it is also quite useful. Actors who can at least claim to have been raised on a mixed diet of savage wit and suppressed mental turmoil are ahead of the pack as far as casting directors are concerned.
As Colman, who after all began her screen career in Peep Show, has said: “My thing is dark comedy. I love it. It’s the whole gamut of humans. We are all a bit of everything. I find a drama with no laughs at all is maybe not as hard-hitting.”