Tuesday, May 30, 2017

"Of Thistledown and Magic": The Artistry of Ben Whishaw

A tidbit of entertainment news recently caught my attention. It's a short piece by Michaela Morgan about an actor I respect and admire, Ben Whishaw (pictured at right), and a TV show I've liked since I was a child, Doctor Who.

Peter Capaldi revealed this week that he would be playing Doctor Who for the last time in the show’s 2017 Christmas Special.

He announced the news on BBC Radio saying, “One of the greatest privileges of being Doctor Who is to see the world at its best. I can't thank everyone enough. It's been cosmic."

The news has sent the rumour mill into overdrive with fans trying to guess who will be selected to play the 13th Doctor next year.

The bookies favourite is currently openly gay actor Ben Whishaw, who is known for his roles in the James Bond franchise, as well as films such as Bright Star and In the Heart of The Sea. He also voices Paddington Bear, FYI.

The odds on Whishaw are currently at 5-1 with actors Richard Ayoade, Rory Kinnear, Miranda Hart and Jason Flemyng also rumoured to be in contention.

If Whishaw is indeed handed down the sonic screwdriver from Capaldi, he would be the first openly gay actor to play Doctor Who.

Since this piece was published, two other actors have been suggested as possible contenders for the role of the Doctor: Tilda Swinton and Sacha Dhawan. (7/17/17 Update: Jodie Whittaker announced as 13th Doctor.)

To be honest, I don't really care who plays the Doctor (and, yes, the correct name is "The Doctor," not "Doctor Who," which is the name only of the show, not the character!). My big hope is that whoever lands the role won't play the Doctor as manically as the last three actors have (David Tennant especially).

Also, I must admit that Doctor Who has lost much of is appeal for me since the 2011 death of Elizabeth Sladen who played Sarah Jane Smith, the Doctor's time and space travelling companion from years ago (1973-1976), yet who would later make special appearances on the show and even had her own successful spin-off show, The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007-2011).

Anyway, all that being said, I was happy to hear that the talented Ben Whishaw might be playing the Doctor. Time will tell, I guess!

In the meantime, here are three projects – two films and one TV series – that feature Ben and which I highly recommended.

Bright Star

I've noted previously that I could quite happily go through each and every day dressed in the attire of a nineteenth-century gentleman. There's just something about the style and deportment of such a figure that appeals to me – a reserved veneer masking a sea of passion! At least that's what I project onto this particular figure, and it's a projection prompted by a number of characters in various films and TV shows – Dick Dewy (James Murray) in Under the Greenwood Tree, Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) in The Time Machine, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) in Les Misérables, Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) in The Woman in Black, John Mornay (Emun Elliott) in The Paradise, Dr. Alexander Sweet (Christian Camargo) in Penny Dreadful, and, of course, Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) in Poldark.

No wonder, then, that I was immediately drawn to Ben Whishaw's portrayal of English Romantic poet John Keats in Jane Campion's 2009 film Bright Star.

In his November 2, 2009 article in The Telegraph, David Gritten wrote the following about this film and its lead actor.

You wouldn’t quite call it a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, but there’s a chill in the air as you approach Keats House in Hampstead, and in its grounds, the leaves on the trees are turning various shades of russet. It’s almost autumnal enough to inspire an ode, and in an upstairs room, Ben Whishaw, who plays John Keats in Bright Star, Jane Campion’s new film about the poet, stares intently from a window, immersing himself in the natural beauty the view affords him.

Whishaw, who rose to fame when he played Hamlet in the West End straight out of drama school, is obvious casting to play Keats. In person, he seems the very stereotype of a Romantic poet. He is slightly built, with a gentle, sincere manner. He looks sensitive, and his default facial expression is faintly melancholic.

He virtually admits that he and Keats were a good fit: “Jane was so keen the film should not be 'acted’. She didn’t want to see any Big Acting, so it never felt like a performance. When it came to shooting, the most important thing seemed to be being honest about what you were feeling.”

Campion’s film, for which she also wrote the script, deals with the last three years of Keats’s short life, and sees him through the eyes of his near neighbour Fanny Brawne (played by Australian actress Abbie Cornish). Her family occupied one half of what is now Keats House, while the poet and his friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) took the other.

Keats and Fanny (who was largely despised by his friends) had a brief, doomed, ardent love affair which ended when Keats contracted tuberculosis and moved to the warmer climes of Italy to try and alleviate his condition. But he died there at the age of 25, having written some of the greatest poetry in the English language.

And following is Ben himself talking about John Keats and his life and legacy.

We think because he was a great poet he must have been highly thought of in his lifetime. But the critical establishment were very unimpressed by him as a person and a writer. In fact they were savage: one journal completely destroyed his first epic poem, Endymion.

To me, it seems incredible that he managed to get up every day and carry on. But Keats encountered death a lot in his life. Most of his relatives died. And I think that gives you a different perspective on what things mean. As well as sensitivity, he had real single-mindedness and resilience.

In preparing for his role in Bright Star, Ben said in a interview that the "key" to understanding Keats is the poet's concept of "negative capability," the "ability to be in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason."

Possessing this ability, Keats had the quality, says Ben, of "being very present in the mystery of life and very open to where life might take him or open to inspiration. . . . To me, this seems to be probably his most essential quality, that kind of level of sensitivity."


In 2014 Ben starred in Hong Khaou's debut film, Lilting, about a gay man struggling to come to terms with the death of his boyfriend Kai (Andrew Leung) and compelled to tell Kai's grieving Cambodian-Chinese mother Junn (Cheng Pei-pei) about his relationship with her son for the first time.

In August of 2014, Ben was interviewed by The Sunday Times Magazine about his experience of coming out and the similarities between the character he plays in Lilting and his own life.

Here's a little of what Ben shared:

My [coming out] experiences were not dramatic. . . . And everyone was surprisingly lovely. I hadn’t anticipated that they would be, but they were.

I identify with the character in Lilting in as much as I had a lot of fear in doing it for a long time. And who can say what? I’m not sure I know. But it takes courage and people have to do it in their own time, which is a negotiation you see happening in the film.

It’s hard to have a conversation with people you’ve known your whole life about a very intimate thing. It’s massively weighted with all sorts of stuff, whatever the wider world is saying. . . . It’s an intimate and private and difficult conversation for most people.

About Lilting Jonathan Romney writes:

Ben Whishaw plays Richard, a young man who hires a translator (Naomi Christie) to oil the wheels of communication between Junn (Cheng Pei-pei), an elderly Cambodian-Chinese woman living in a retirement home, and her English OAP beau (Peter Bowles). In reality, however, Richard is himself aching to connect with Junn, the mother of his recently deceased lover Kai (Andrew Leung). This delicate low-budget British miniature weaves a complex disquisition on mourning, memory, love and language, with a confident avoidance of overt emotional rhetoric. Director-writer Hong Khaou cleverly weaves Chinese and English dialogue, withholding subtitles when we need to be as much out of the loop as Richard. It's finely performed all round: Whishaw is wry, nervy and vulnerable, and veteran Cheng (a wuxia action queen from the 60s onwards) brings a rueful gravity to Junn, a woman deeply unimpressed by the world around her. Fluid, surprising camerawork (Ula Pontikos) and oblique but unfussy play with time frames make for an affecting, intelligent, unapologetically downbeat feature debut.

London Spy

London Spy is a five-part British/American TV series created and written by Tom Rob Smith. It first aired on BBC Two in November-December of 2015. My friend Pete and I recently watched it on DVD. We found it to be both a compelling love story and an intriguing drama/thriller.

Writing about the series in The Guardian, Huw Oliver offers the following synopsis.

Subtler and more romantic than your usual spook fare, the plot spirals out of a gay love story – surely the first such intrigue in a mainstream TV spy drama – and is propelled by Whishaw’s perpetually downtrodden Danny. Working in a stock room by day and frequenting Vauxhall’s clubs by night, Danny is, says Whishaw, a bit lost. But everything changes when he bumps into the beneficent, enigmatic Alex[/Alister] (Edward Holcroft) on Lambeth Bridge in the early hours after a night out. The two characters are vastly different: Alex is an awkward and eloquent maths genius; Danny is, despite his circumstances, cheeky, charming and boyish. But they click and a relationship blossoms. All this time, Danny believes Alex to be an investment banker, but he is in fact a gifted MI6 spy. And when the latter suddenly disappears and the police start asking difficult questions, Danny gets sucked into the shadowy, subversive, terrifying world of espionage.

In her review of the series for The Guardian, Lucy Mangan calls London Spy "an unutterably delicious, satisfying dish," with Whishaw "the most powerful actor ever made out of thistledown and magic."

Writing for TV Insider, Matt Roush shares the following about London Spy.

It's a safe bet you've never seen a sex-pionage yarn quite like BBC America's wildly original and deeply moving London Spy, from novelist Tom Rob Smith (Child 44). A tragic love story masquerading as a spy thriller, this five-part drama is a terrific tour de force for Ben Whishaw as Danny, a romantically wishful, wistful and emotionally fragile drifter who falls for the strong and silent investment banker Alex (Edward Holcroft)—which may not be his real name, and almost surely isn't his true profession.

Their eight-month courtship is captured in passionate and moody detail, although Alex's guarded nature makes him an unending enigma to Danny, a puzzle that only deepens when Alex suddenly disappears. Spy quickly becomes a brooding, haunting and surreal mystery of identity as well as a poignant study of lives lived in the shadows: those of spies as well as homosexuals.

"Romantics make unreliable spies," says Danny's protector/mentor Scotty (a moving Jim Broadbent [left]), a former agent who knows only too well the toll of blackmail and self-denial. But Danny is resolute in pursuing the truth surrounding Alex, despite one contact's warning that "You have the very particular stink of a man out of his depth." The further Danny descends into a rabbit hole of secret conspiracy and paranoia, the more he realizes almost no one is who they seem and that his enemies will go to extraordinary lengths to protect their lies. (The tremendous supporting cast includes, in episodes to come, Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling and Adrian Lester as pivotal figures from Alex's cloudy, troubled past.)

"You're looking for answers, but are you ready for them?" a voice on the phone taunts Danny. A warning viewers might heed as well, because the audacious revelations in the final chapters are shattering and disturbing reminders of the cost of truth in a world built on deception.

In one powerful scene in episode two of London Spy, Alister's/Alex's mother Frances (Charlotte Rampling) takes Danny aside and attempts to explain her deceased son to him.

Alister didn't think like ordinary people. He didn't feel what ordinary people feel. In his eyes everyone was a puzzle. He took immense satisfaction figuring out what a person wanted and then giving it to them, as if we were all computers waiting for the correct code. Alister could be anything a person wanted him to be. In your case, it appears you craved romance, a good old fashioned love story. He gave it to you. Meanwhile, he continued giving other kinds of stimulation to other kinds of people -- men and women. He was involved with someone who hankered after risk. He would have provided it. Danger. Pain. Submission. Domination. Alister was precocious sexually as he was intellectually. To him they were one and the same. Sex was just another form of decryption.

But Danny isn't having any of it. He responds by calming saying:

I haven't read many books. I haven't been to many places. But I have fucked a lot of people. And there's one thing you just can't fake: inexperience – body's tense when it should be relaxed; it hurts when it should be fun; and it's dirty when it should be clean. I don't care how smart you are. Your muscles can't lie. I'm talking about feeling his inexperience as clearly as I can feel this glass [in my hand]. Do you follow me, Frances? I can see you do. So I know for a fact you're lying. I know for a fact that your son, the man I loved, was a virgin. What I don't understand is why you're so keen to convince me otherwise.

And understanding this, of course, is what Danny is determined to do, no matter what it takes.

In a November 2015 article in The Guardian, Ben shared his take on London Spy and on Danny, the character he plays in it.

It doesn’t really feel like a spy thriller to me, although it sort of is. It’s broader than that, because it’s about a character who’s not within that world, about somebody who stumbles into it and to whom it’s alien and mystifying. So it doesn’t feel like a traditional spy drama in that sense. It’s more about his mind.

In the same article, London Spy's screenwriter and director Tom Rob Smith also comments on Ben's character, Danny.

Danny’s journey is essentially one of meeting people who are extraordinary in some particular way. He’s trying to decode what part these people play in the conspiracy, if there is one. People are very ambiguous and Ben as Danny is looking to figure out what roles these people play. It’s basically a thriller that explores the uncertainty of people, not the uncertainty of institutions.

And finally, from the same Guardian piece, here is Ben's London Spy co-star Harriet Walter (pictured with Ben at right) on the artistry of Ben's acting.

He’s totally truthful. You don’t quite know when he’s practising and when he’s just thinking and when he’s acting. And I constantly, still, need to learn from people like that. We always need to do a check on ourselves about truthfulness because every acting generation has a different conception of it.

Related Off-site Links:
A Day With Ben Whishaw, From Diner Coffee to Onstage Scars – Rebecca Milzoff (Vulture, May 17, 2016).
When You Whishaw Pawn a Star – Petra Halbur (Ponderings of a Cinephile, March 1, 2013).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Dreaming of Spring
What We Mean by Love

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