Cillian Murphy and the casting of “Oppenheimer”

David Bad­diel has ques­tioned the cast­ing of the non-Jew­ish Cil­lian Mur­phy in the role of Robert J. Oppenheimer. 

And both Clarisse Loughrey and Peter Brad­shaw were sim­i­lar­ly crit­i­cal in their reviews of the film for The Inde­pen­dent and The Guardian respec­tive­ly. But the film’s far more egre­gious sin, sure­ly, was its fail­ure to cast an actu­al physi­cist in the role.

After all, his voca­tion as a nuclear physi­cist was far more fun­da­men­tal to Oppen­heimer the man than his cul­tur­al her­itage. But, bizarrely, the film­mak­ers chose inex­plic­a­bly to cast an actor in the role! Which isn’t just frankly sil­ly, it’s gross­ly unfair. 

Antho­ny Hop­kins, doing his best.

How on earth can an actor be expect­ed to have any kind of under­stand­ing or feel­ing for the casu­al back­stab­bing and ruth­less com­pet­i­tive­ness that aca­d­e­mics have to deal with, every day?

The only way to make a role like that in any way believ­able is by cast­ing an actu­al physi­cist. Actu­al­ly, now that I think about it, you know who would have been absolute­ly per­fect? Stephen Hawk­ing. If of course he’d been Jew­ish. And still alive. 

It’s that kind of old fash­ioned, colo­nial-era mis­cast­ing that’s bedev­illed Hol­ly­wood since God was a child. Exam­ples are, almost, too numer­ous to cat­a­logue. But prob­a­bly the most infa­mous was the sor­ry sight of the mild-man­nered, unfail­ing­ly polite and vis­i­bly well-mean­ing Antho­ny Hop­kins try­ing for­lorn­ly to con­vince in the role of Han­ni­bal Lecter.

Orson Welles as Othello.

Sure­ly they could have found one of the many flesh-eat­ing mass mur­der­ers bid­ing their time in any num­ber of the jails there to take on the role? Whose idea was it to imag­ine that Hop­kins could be in any way believ­able por­tray­ing a char­ac­ter he clear­ly had absolute­ly no cul­tur­al con­nec­tion with?!

And don’t get me start­ed on Orson Welles as, if you can believe it, Oth­el­lo!! Or, for that mat­ter, Mar­lon Bran­do as, wait for it, Mark Antony!!

Bran­do had nev­er set foot in Italy, had nev­er stud­ied the Clas­sics and had had absolute­ly no prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence or knowl­edge of the life or world of a prac­tic­ing politi­cian, what­so­ev­er. Nev­er mind a Roman one!! And yet there he is, casu­al­ly don­ning a toga, if you don’t mind. 

Mar­lon Bran­do as Mark Anntony.

What is it about priv­i­leged, white, mid­dle class, mid­dle aged males that makes them imag­ine that all you need do is don a cos­tume, mem­o­rize lines that have been care­ful­ly sculpt­ed and painful­ly ago­nized over, and immerse your­self in an exten­sive pro­gramme of pro­found, unre­lent­ing and often mani­a­cal­ly obses­sive research, that can stretch for months and years at a time, and then, hey presto, you’re sud­den­ly equipped, mag­i­cal­ly, to some­how inhab­it anoth­er char­ac­ter?! I mean, seriously?!

Would that it were that sim­ple, gen­tle­men. All any of that can be called, I’m afraid, is cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion, pure and sim­ple. And I, for one, say enough. Enough is enough, it real­ly is. It’s lit­er­al­ly the same word (© any num­ber of Late night Amer­i­can stand-ups).

Which isn’t, of course, to in any way take away from any of the mar­vel­lous per­for­mances that actress­es have giv­en in the role of, for instance, men. Each of which, with­out excep­tion, were coura­geous, thought-pro­vok­ing and bril­liant­ly chal­lenged our social mores and cul­tur­al preconceptions.

I’m think­ing of course of Judi Dench as M, Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There, Gwyneth Pal­trow in Shake­speare in Love and, for that mat­ter, any one of those won­der­ful­ly inven­tive all-female pro­duc­tions of Shake­speare. Which, delight­ful­ly, are often per­formed in the park.

Welles’ cel­e­brat­ed pro­duc­tion of the Scot­tish play.

Equal­ly, Welles’ ‘voodoo’ Mac­beth, from 1936, in which all of the Scot­tish parts were per­formed by an all black cast, was brave, admirable and entire­ly to be applaud­ed – and one of the few that things that, for once, Welles man­aged not to make a mess of. 

But as for that unfor­giv­able per­for­mance in -

(con­tin­ued on pages 62–187. For the full list of all the films that we should nev­er watch, ever again, see Appen­dices F(1) F(2) and S.)

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Tár: a Good Film that Could Have Been So Much More


Tár is a metic­u­lous­ly craft­ed film, boasts a tow­er­ing per­for­mance from Cate Blanchett, and tack­les a seri­ous sub­ject in a care­ful­ly con­sid­ered and mea­sured way. So why does it leave the view­er qui­et­ly deflated?

Todd Field made his direc­to­r­i­al debut in 2001 with In the Bed­room, and fol­lowed that up with his adap­ta­tion of Tom Perrotta’s Lit­tle Chil­dren, in 2006, both of which are superb. 

All his films are clear­ly a con­scious riposte and anti­dote to a cul­ture that seems to have trad­ed seri­ous­ness and depth for ephemer­al triv­ia and emp­ty if imme­di­ate grat­i­fi­ca­tion. And in each film, the lives of com­fort­able but sym­pa­thet­ic mid­dle class pro­tag­o­nists are sud­den­ly uproot­ed by exter­nal threats they’re inca­pable of comprehending.

Lydia Tár, played by Blanchett, is that rare thing, a respect­ed and suc­cess­ful con­duc­tor in the world of clas­si­cal music, who hap­pens to be gay. Though hap­pi­ly ensconced with her part­ner and their 7 year old daugh­ter, she clear­ly is or was roman­ti­cal­ly engaged with her assis­tant, Francesca, and had ear­li­er had some sort of a tryst and or rela­tion­ship with a musi­cal pro­tégée called Krista. 

Enter Olga, the new­ly arrived and much younger cel­list in the orches­tra, who Blanchett instant­ly devel­ops a crush on. Indeed, the only rea­son Olga secures her posi­tion is pre­cise­ly because of said infatuation. 

In the Bed­room, 2001

But when, and with­out giv­ing any­thing away, it’s dis­cov­ered that Krista has com­mit­ted sui­cide and has some­how impli­cat­ed Blanchett, her com­fort­able exis­tence begins to unravel. 

The prob­lem is, the film spends far too much time estab­lish­ing its clas­si­cal music cre­den­tials, and not near­ly enough explor­ing the dra­mat­ic ques­tions it rais­es. What exact­ly is Blanchett accused of doing, what does she think she did, what actu­al­ly hap­pened, and how big is the gap between the pub­lic per­cep­tion of what she’s accused of and what she actu­al­ly did?

If the film had failed to ful­ly address any of its dra­mat­ic ques­tions, and had insist­ed instead on remain­ing stead­fast­ly enig­mat­ic over the course of, say, a 90 minute film, then that might have been one thing. But Tár goes on for the guts of 2 and ¾ hours. 

And what you get instead are extend­ed dis­cus­sions of Mahler’s 5th, and the mild­ly con­tentious ques­tion around the tem­po of its adagi­et­to, and reams and reams of her jog­ging, rehears­ing and com­pos­ing. The open­ing scene in par­tic­u­lar, in which she’s inter­viewed by the New York­er’s Adam Gop­nik, goes on for ev er.

Lit­tle Chil­dren, 2006.

You’d love to have sent them away for a month with their script and a rig­or­ous script edi­tor. Or alter­na­tive­ly, to have been left alone with the fin­ished film and a pair of scis­sors in an edit­ing suite.

When it does focus on the dra­ma, as for instance with the scenes between Blanchett and Olga, or between Blanchett and her wife and daugh­ter, the film siz­zles and sparks fly. It just fails entire­ly to pro­duce any kind of sat­is­fy­ing third act.

Tár is impec­ca­bly made and impres­sive­ly seri­ous, and it’s com­fort­ably one of the best films to come out of Hol­ly­wood in years. But, dis­ap­point­ing­ly, that’s all it is. When it could and should have been so much more substantial. 

You can see the trail­er for Tár here:

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