Sunday, January 25, 2009

MICHAEL SHEEN: An Appreciation

The review by Manohla Dargis in Saturday's NY Times of the third film in the Underworld franchise set me to reminiscing on the splendid talent and unusual career of

actor Michael Sheen (above in Underworld, at right in Blood Diamond), two of whose early films should be on any fan's must-see list: HEARTLANDS, from 2002, and DIRTY FILTHY LOVE, a British television movie from 2004.

It's the latter film -- in which OCD, coupled with a bit of Tourette’s Syndrome, gets quite a going-over -- that made me so very aware of this actor. The movie features Shirley Henderson's usual good work and a star-making performance from Sheen that few here in the U.S. ever saw. So good -- specific, immediate and real -- is Sheen in this role that I actually believed that the producers had hired an unknown actor who suffered from Tourette's and/or OCD. So completely does Sheen pull you into his world that you’ll wince and look away from embarrassment as you watch his character try to negotiate life. Thanks to the combination of intelligent screenplay (Jeff Pope with actor Ian Puleston-Davies), direction (Adrian Shergold) and performances (the ex-wife is portrayed with more understanding and kindness than is often found in this sort of film, and many of the subsidiary characters are given more than the usual minimum of reality), the film avoids melodrama, at least until toward the end. Even then, you may forgive this, as I certainly did, due to Sheen’s magnetic work. The film's final visual makes a beautiful, understated declaration.

Immediately after seeing Dirty Filthy Love, the first thing I wanted to do was to find out more about the actor who had played the lead. I searched the Netflix and Blockbuster catalogs and came up with another movie of which I'd never heard: Heartlands -- which went immediately to the top of my queue. Written by Paul Fraser and directed by Damien O'Donnell, the movie is, first of all, so visually beautiful to view in terms of composition, clarity and color that I found myself trying not to blink for fear of missing yet another splendid touch. Even the beginning, set in a heavily "industrial" neighborhood, manages to look interesting. Then, two-thirds of the way through, there is a "grainy" section in an amusement park, and damned if that isn't beautiful, too. More important, Heartlands is that rare movie in which, despite a story about infidelity and loss, it's little acts of kindness that take a front seat, and you find yourself increasingly joyful due to the simple, caring things that one person does for another. This is not something one encounters often in films. The main character is a poor schlub, played beautifully by Sheen, who initially appears borderline feeble. But as he begins to re-order his life, he--and the movie--grow stronger and better. The entire cast (there’s a wonderful cameo from Celia Imrie) is aces, and one particular scene continues to haunt my mind: As the Sheen character looks through a window at dancing club-goers, the difference between living and desperately trying to live is captured without a bit of verbal moralizing. In its quiet and thoughtful way, Heartlands left me feeling more buoyant than has any film I've encountered since (and I saw it several years ago). I hope that you'll be graced with the same response.

Because I only looked in the Netflix catalog, rather than on the IMDB, I did not realize until much later all the many films in which Sheen had already appeared and which I had seen without recognizing the actor -- including the original Underworld. Yet I remembered being impressed with the urgency of the character he played. There was a ferocity and need present in this performance that wiped the floor with what lead actor Scott Speedman (a performer whose work I often admire) was doing. Sheen has the kind of visage that, if not terribly handsome (Brad Pitt and George Clooney need not worry), is certainly pleasant-enough-looking from role to role. And yet he is one of those actors who disappears into each new character, taking his looks along with him -- which is why he is not immediately recognizable. Yet each performance is recognizable (and memorable) because of the vitality, specificity and -- aw, hell, I'll say it -- the "sheen" that he brings to it. While the actor is able to convey a sense of keen intelligence -- occasionally coupled to something feral -- in roles such as that of everyone's favorite piece of Prime Minister sleaze in The Queen (photo, above) or The Deal, some of his best work has come from roles such as Dirty Filthy Love and Heartlands, in which he essays a physically/mentally impaired or unusually clueless character.

An actor likely to be referenced by a question such as, He was in that movie, too?, the performer began his career as one of the leads in the popular and very dark three-part British mystery series Gallowglass (from 1993 and available here on DVD -- or maybe not: See Ginger's comment below. I just looked for Gallowglass and could not now find it anywhere, either). Since then, Sheen has never been adverse to taking smaller roles in bigger films, as he did in Oliver Parker's so-so Othello ('94) and the Neil Jordan misstep Mary Reilly ('96). I remember him better from his role in Wilde as Robbie Ross opposite Stephen Fry's Oscar. The under-seen and not-so-terrible-as-you've-heard remake of The Four Feathers came in 2002, followed by Sheen's working with and for Fry again in the latter's memorable and too-little-seen Bright Young Things. (I believe that's a very bright and young-looking Sheen in the poster above, second from right, next to the fabulous Fenella Woolgar, who ought to have won every award in the book for her terrific performance in this film.) Then came Underworld, The Deal (made for British TV in 2003 and only seen here last year, and the dreadful Timeline. 2004 saw Sheen appear with Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore in the entertaining Laws of Attraction, and the following year in Ridley Scott's yes-but-it-did-well-overseas epic Kingdom of Heaven.

Sheen hit it big in 2006 with his leading role in The Queen and another small support job in Hollywood's phony-baloney try at the "cause"-cum-entertainment movie Blood Diamond. In 2007 the actor returned to his "severely outsider" mode as the handicapped Art (show above in wheelchair, with Melissa George, left and Ron Livington) in Music Within, giving us another indelible, so-real-it-hurts character -- and in a much better cause-related movie.

Now, within a month's theatrical release of each other come Frost/Nixon and the latest Underworld segment . Will most moviegoers make the connection between the fellow playing the light, quick, smart TV interviewer and the angry, violent werewolf progenitor, shown above? Not a chance. (There won't be that much audience overlap on the two films, in any case.) But for those aware buffs who want to discover all that Mr. Sheen offers, consider this an advisement to rent Dirty Filthy Love, Heartlands and Music Within. For a start.


Ginger said...

I've been trying to get Gallowglass and Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa! on DVD but can't find them for Region 1 (or any region, actually). Any leads?

James van Maanen, said...

Hi, Ginger--
I am embarrassed to say that, though I am CERTAIN I watched Gallowglass on DVD some years back, now that I have looked around the web, I can no longer find it anywhere. Senility, perhaps? (Maybe I taped it off of the PBS' Mystery series years ago.) You might try finding it via PBS, as they often offer their stuff on DVD. Or they might even sell you an old boxed tape set....) Good luck!
PS: I know absolutely nothing about Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa, but good luck there, too.

James van Maanen, said...

Hold the phone! Just checked again on the IMDB page that shows what looks like a video version of Gallowglass. Up at the top of the cover is the BBC logo, so maybe try finding a DVD via the BBCA, here in the US, or via the BBC Britain website...