Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In Character: Emily Mortimer

Welcome back to In Character, a weekly column dedicated to drawing attention to the actors many know but cannot name.  Here’s to giving credit to the character actors who deserve more of it.

To be fair, I don’t exactly consider Emily Mortimer a character actress.  Although many people recognize her without knowing her name, I can’t in good conscious concede that one of my favorite current actresses (third only to Marion Cotillard and Naomi Watts), doesn't have as high a celebrity status as she should.  Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, but whether you know her name or not, there’s no denying the subtle power of an Emily Mortimer performance.

There are a handful of rather mediocre films on this list, and the sole reason those films are here is because the name Emily Mortimer caused me to see them. I may find City Island forgettable or Lars and the Real Girl downright silly, but Mortimer’s performances (in those films and anything, really) couldn’t be more noteworthy.

Plus, not since Al Pacino has an actor made such poetic use of a David Mamet-penned “fuck.” If that’s not saying something, I’m not quite sure what is.

Five Six Essentials
Match Point (2005)
Chloe Hewett Wilton
As the moral center of Woody Allen’s masterful Match Point, Mortimer is the perfect incarnation of British high class. She’s proper, kind, intelligent, and most importantly for the film’s purposes, completely unaware.  All of these traits, mind you, do not make for a wealthy floozy. In Mortimer’s hands, Chloe is given a depth beyond the written material.  She’s likeable yet strong, wealthy yet humbled.

Let me put it this way, for the film’s ending to be as convincing as it is, Mortimer must deliver a performance of charm, elegance, and reliability.  In short, she has to be worth killing for.  If Match Point works for you, then much of its success is owed to Mortimer.

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Karin is a tough role to play. The understanding wife character that could very easily be written off as a cliché.  She’s the only character in Lars and the Real Girl who, from the onset, supports Lars’ decision to date a life-sized plastic doll.  She spends a great deal of the movie helping Lars through his endeavor and convincing her husband, Lars’ brother, to say something nice or nothing at all.  She’s a beacon of support, until, in a shattering monologue, she lets her frustration get the best of her.

Giving yourself less than two minutes to say everything you’ve wanted to say for 90 minutes of film isn’t exactly easy.  But when I first watched the scene in which Karin calls Lars out on his behavior, I leaned back in my chair, wowed by Mortimer’s execution.  It’s a great performance lost in an otherwise mediocre film.  If the film’s plot scenario has turned potential viewers away, believe me, your hesitation is not without merit.  You are, however, missing out on a genuinely great performance.

Redbelt (2008)
Laura Black
“Yeah, I can’t find the fucking pharmacy,” is the first thing we hear Mortimer’s Laura say in David Mamet’s Redbelt.  And from there, we’re off and running.

Laura is a complicated woman. The victim of sexual assault, she is headstrong, lost, desperate for affection, and utterly incapable of dealing with her mental anguish.  That is until Chiwetel Ejiofor’s martial arts instructor forcibly makes her.

In one harrowing scene, Ejiofor spends 10 seconds doing what 20 years of therapy may fail to achieve: he makes her accept what she’s been through.  He throws her insecurities right in her face and gives her no choice but to confront them.  It’s a gut-wrenching moment that shakes me every time I watch the film. Two actors at the top of their game.

Transsiberian (2008)
In a lot of ways, Jessie is the perfect mix of Mortimer’s best characters.  She’s quiet and reserved, opting usual to smoke and stare while her boisterous husband (Woody Harrelson) rambles on.  She’s smart and kind, but not without her deadly wits.  Push her into a corner and you better believe she’ll push back.

Jessie is thrown repeatedly into situations in which she can cower and give up, or fight the good fight.  It’s refreshing to watch the sidekick wife actually be given a chance to instill a little feminine ferociousness.  Transsiberian is a surprisingly good film, and Mortimer, you may have guessed, is by far the best part of it.

“Kill off all my demons and my angels might die too.” That’s goddamn right.

Shutter Island (2010)
Rachel Solando
Mortimer isn’t in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island that much, but when she is, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her.  Take the scene in her cell in which she describes what she did that morning.  What starts as a simple chronicling of daily routine quickly grows tremendously threatening.  She mistakes Leonardo DiCaprio for her husband, then corrects her mistake, all with wide eyes and a shifting demeanor.

Then there’s the shot of her bathed in blood, standing above her recently-slain children.  She stares at DiCaprio with an embarrassed smile, as if she’s just dropped the main course of dinner on the kitchen floor.  Shutter Island produces a great many frights, none more prevalent than a blood-splattered Mortimer dressed in her Sunday best.

City Island (2010)
Usually, character actors often make a decent movie better by stealing a few scenes.  Mortimer, however, has the uncanny ability to steal an entire movie, thereby making the film completely worthy. City Island is a lot of things: close-to-aimless, weakly scripted, and far too playful.  But it is also a platform of some of Mortimer’s best work. 

To quote my original review: City Island’s plot is a bit flimsy, rarely do the characters take matters seriously, so why should we?  The movie, I think, wants to be a comedy, but at times, strives to hit some real emotional depth. Enter Ms. Mortimer.

With her deeply poignant performance in City Island, Emily Mortimer proves, yet again, that she is the most underrated actress working in movies. There’s a scene in the film, in which Mortimer and Andy Garcia have a candid conversation on a dock, that makes the film nearly necessary. Watch her face as she shares her most personal secret. Listen to the pitch of her voice. That, my friends, is acting.

The Best of the Best
Lovely and Amazing (2001)
Elizabeth Marks
For Nicole Holofcener’s aptly titled second film, Mortimer plays Elizabeth, a struggling actress from a well-to-do family who, like the other women in her family, is letting her insecurities get the better of her.

Because she was recently denied a role based solely on her looks, Elizabeth’s most pressing insecurity is in her apparent lack of beauty. This is interesting for a few reasons: one, because Elizabeth is far from unattractive, and two, because instead of being angry (or resorting to elective surgery) Elizabeth’s fading confidence manifests itself internally.  In fact, when she speaks about it, she almost comes off as indifferent, which is anything but.

Take, for example, the film’s best scene, which also marks the best scene of Mortimer’s career. After sleeping with Kevin, a successful actor played with perfect restrained smugness by Dermot Mulroney, Elizabeth politely asks if he’ll critique every physical imperfection he notices on her. Assuming this to be a trap, Kevin denies profusely, but eventually relents once Elizabeth promises not to get upset.  She stands up, void of any clothes, walks to the corner of the room and listens as Kevin talks about her skinny body, uneven breasts, flabby arms, and so on.  Elizabeth stands there, only asking for more. Her face stoic yet pleasant. When Kevin is done, she gets dressed and the scene ends.

Obviously, standing butt naked in front of a camera for several minutes is an extremely courageous feat, but it’s how Mortimer plays the scene perfectly against-type that makes it so memorable.  To be clear, and hopefully not perverse, when a woman as attractive as Emily Mortimer stands naked on camera and you find yourself unable to look at anything but her face, then something is being done right.

It’s a truly great performance, one that launched the impressive, ever-evolving career of one of our finest contemporary actresses.

Other Notable Roles
Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer in Paris, Je T'Aime
Notting Hill (1999)
Scream 3 (2000)
Young Adam (2003)
Dear Frankie (2004)
The Pink Panther (2006)
30 Rock (2007)
Paris, Je T'Aime (2007)
Harry Brown (2009)
Our Idiot Brother (2011)

Previous installments of In Character include:
John Hawkes
Jeffrey Wright
Elias Koteas
David Strathairn


  1. She is wonderful, I think she has a certain charm, although she seems to be a very ordinary, simple, not very attractive woman. I really like Emily! And I will check out Redbelt, it sounds good!

  2. oh yeah Redbelt is really good. if you're a Mamet fan, you'll love it. His directing works garners such little attention, it's a real shame.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. A great actress. I've always liked Mortimer, though to be honest I haven't seen her in much at all. I definitely need to check out some of these films.

  4. Glad you mentioned Redbelt and 30 Rock - probably my two favorite roles of hers.

    Totally forgot she was in Shutter Island but that's due to alcohol, not Mortimer.

    I just saw Howl's Moving Castle and she's even great just as a voice actress.

    Side note - I'm not a huge fan of Naomi Watts and I feel like I've seen a good chunk of her work. What am I missing?

  5. @Tyler, yeah man she's solid in everything on here, can't speak highly enough of her Lovely and Amazing performance

    @Robert, your alcohol comment made in laugh out loud at work, funny shit

    Now, Watts. I've seen everything she's been in post-Mulholland Dr., the film that made me fall in love with her (naturally). And since, my favorites are:
    21 Grams
    We Don't Live Here Anymore
    Elle Parker
    Funny Games
    The Assassination of Richard Nixon
    The Painted Veil
    Eastern Promises
    Fair Game...

    I realize I've just listed the majority of her filmography, but all of those films (21 Grams in particular) contain what I consider to be excellent Watts performances.

  6. I love Emily, she is such a pretty acress and I adore "Lars and the real girl", "Match Point" and her segment in "Paris je t'aime". Is Transsiberian worth watching?

  7. I think Transsiberian is an extremely underrated movie. It's no masterpiece, but it's definitely good, and Mortimer is great in it.

  8. Ha, glad I could bring some joy to your work day.

    Hmm those are all good choices. Forgot about The Painted Veil I did like her in that.

    I just think back on King Kong and I didn't really love her performance in that. I've also seen some of her in J. Edgar from previews and stuff and she seemed a little flat. Although I guess that's not a good way to judge a performance.

  9. I'll give both of those to you. In my opinion, both of those movies are so large in scope, the actors (or at least the supporting actors) are treated as by-products.

    I didn't like King Kong, partly because she wasn't given a whole lot to do in it. I hated J. Edgar much in part because she wasn't given shit to do in it.

    Have you seen 21 Grams? It's brutal.

  10. I saw it but it was years ago and I should watch it again. Now Funny Games I've never seen and I probably should.

    I haven't seen over half of those films you mentioned so I should probably shut up now and just watch 'em.

  11. ha fair enough. Yeah, watch 21 Grams and Funny Games in the same day. Heavy shit. No big deal.

  12. First, thanks for mentioning Redbelt, which often gets overlooked in the Mamet catalogue. Secondly, I totally agree that Lovely & Amazing is her best role. The bedroom scene, in particular, was pretty darn brilliant.

    (PS: City Island was better to my mind than you thought!)

  13. I admit that I'm not really into David Mamet but I totally dug Redbelt. Especially for Emily Mortimer.

    My top 5 Emily Mortimer performances so far are...

    1. Lovely & Amazing
    2. Match Point
    3. Lars & the Real Girl
    4. Dear Frankie
    5. Shutter Island

    I also kinda dug her in Cars 2, an OK film but I liked her character.

  14. GREAT choices, obviously I agree with you very much. Yeah, Mamet is definitely acquired taste. Some of my most trusted movie friends hate his stuff. I think his writing is ingenious, but it's by far the best part of his films. Mortimer, however, kills it in that flick.

  15. @Colin (sorry, missed your comment before)... you know it's funny, after writing this post, I went back and watched some of City Island on Netflix, and perhaps I'm being a little too hard on it. It's a nice, breezy film, but just a little too over the top at times.

    So glad to hear that you like Lovely and Amazing. It deserves a larger audience.

  16. Find out this post, thank you Alex :) I really consider Emily's charm on The Newsroom: Mackenzie McHale, very strong character.

    1. Thanks for reading! I'm not the biggest fan of that show, but Mortimer is nothing less than fantastic in it!

  17. I've only seen a few of her films but reading this makes me want to see more of her work.

    1. Ah, I just love her in everything. She's amazing.