By Chris Wallace
The West End’s hot ticket this Christmas is Richard II starring Eddie Redmayne at the Donmar Warehouse. Eddie who?
Eddie Redmayne is one of the three beautiful young men of contemporary English acting. There’s Ben Whishaw, Dominic Cooper and Redmayne - Wishaw the brains, Cooper the brawn and Redmayne the blithe spirit.
If you don’t know him yet, you soon will. Tall, skinny, beestung-lipped Redmayne is to play “Marius” in next year’s film version of Les Misérables from English director Tom (The King’s Speech) Hooper. It’s going to be a monster. Hugh Jackman is to play “Jean Valjean” and Russell Crowe will be “Inspector Javert”. (If you’re wondering about the antipodean tang in the casting of this and Hooper’s previous feature, perhaps Australian blood on his expat mother’s side helps our casting chances in Hooper films.)
Before Les Mis, though, you may see Eddie Redmayne in My Week With Marilyn. He plays Colin Clark, son of Sir Kenneth (Civilisation) Clark, who was third assistant director to Laurence Olivier on the 1956 shoot of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). It’s about the making of the film as well as the surprising relationship that sprang up during filming between the keen, green young Colin and the worldly yet fragile Monroe, brilliantly played by Michelle Williams.
The casting is superb. Williams and Kenneth Branagh, who plays Olivier, are supported by a strong second tier in Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike, Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller (whom Monroe had recently married), Dominic Cooper as a zealous member of Monroe’s entourage and Emma Watson as the wardrobe girl young Colin pursues. The period is convincingly evoked, from Redmayne’s gorgeous wardrobe (think Dirk Bogarde circa 1955) to Michelle Williams’ body shape (generously proportioned as was Monroe in real life).
As well as directing, Olivier starred as the “Prince” opposite Monroe’s “Showgirl”. The Olivier-Monroe dynamic is a fascinating parallel thread to the dominant Clark-Monroe thrust of the story. Olivier was infuriated by Monroe’s lateness to set, her hesitant approach to the part and, beneath it all, by her failure to be bowled over by him, England’s great theatrical star.
Handling “Marilyn” all wrong, Branagh gets “Olivier” just right. It is to young Colin that Monroe turns for an explanation as to why Olivier seems to hate her. Colin explains that Olivier, a great theatrical actor, is the past, looking at her, a great film actor, who is the future. The camera hates Olivier and loves Monroe. Jaded asides to Colin from Olivier, who can’t help but notice Colin’s growing stature in the Monroe court, validate the analysis. He thought casting Monroe would bring the elixir of youth to his film presence, Olivier explains bitterly to Colin, when in fact the contrast made him look older and plainer on screen.
Eddie Redmayne fits easily into his role, partly because he’s lived some of it. When Redmayne (Eton and Cambridge) as Colin Clark (Eton and Oxford) takes Marilyn to Eton during their week playing hookey from The Prince and the Showgirl set, he’s literally on home ground. And he looks new, fresh, unblemished – a wonderful contrast to the experienced old stagers around him in the film (both of them).
It’s one thing to play the handsome young ingénue as Redmayne does in My Week With Marilyn, however, and another to play the lead in Shakespeare’s Richard II following in the footsteps of, variously, Derek Jacobi, Ralph Fiennes, Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey and their ilk. He mostly pulls it off, in his own fresh, intense way.
His casting is a “masterstroke” according to the Daily Telegraph. “(H)e portrays Richard as upper-class damaged goods, with the slightly trapped, strangulated tones and underlying insecurity of someone whose background is both a crutch and a straitjacket,” said The Independent’s review, accurately. “Both cocky and tremulous, Redmayne captures perfectly the peculiar mixture in Richard of a many who feels born to rule but incapable of doing so,” went The Observer’s review. But some others judged the role too much, too soon for the relatively inexperienced Redmayne who studied art history at Cambridge rather than getting a grounding in the classics at RADA, LAMDA or Guildford Hall like the rest of the cast.
It’s possible that Redmayne is more Monroe than Olivier, that his beautiful open face, big eyes and generous lips are made for the camera rather than the stage lights. But just as the tyro filmmaker Colin Clark threw himself into his big chance on the shoot of The Prince and the Showgirl, so Eddie Redmayne gives Richard II his all. Youthful enthusiasm is a beautiful thing.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times, 24 December 2011