Now, it is technically a little touch and go as to whether she qualifies at all, since she has been nominated for an Academy Award and those of our readers who have been paying attention will recall that we have so far defined “unsung” pretty strictly.
But Vera Farmiga deserves board and lodging at The Overlooked Hotel and here are some of the reasons why.
Up in the Air
It was indeed for her performance in Up in the Air that Farmiga was nominated by the Academy, a nomination that ironically may scupper her chances of gaining entry to the Overlooked Hotel. One could and should wax eloquent about Up in the Air’s considerable appeal, from Anna Kendrick’s alternately resolute and brittle breakthrough performance, to George Clooney’s unflappable, charming demeanour. Farmiga plays off Clooney (and occasionally Kendrick) with aplomb, showcasing versatility, wit and intelligence, right up to (and including) the subtle devastation of the denouement when Clooney finally summons up the courage to seek something more than fleeting and superficial with her.
The chemistry between Clooney and Farmiga is formidable and their scenes are played to perfection, Jason Reitman cementing a rock-solid reputation that was forged via Thank You For Smoking and Juno (and has been continued with Young Adult and, depending on who you ask, Labor Day and Men, Women & Children).
Up in the Air was painfully timely on its release, coinciding with a global downturn and a collective workforce shedding exercise by thousands of employers. The film’s compassion and humanity shine through and Farmiga contributed considerably to that, her light touch and alternating flashes of strength, light-heartedness and wit all helped make this one of those films that you cannot help but remember fondly.
A film this blatant about its inspirations should by rights have crashed and burned. Using Scott Bakula in a film that owes such a debt to Quantum Leap (and Groundhog Day) should have caused it to collapse under its own meta-weight, but its brisk running time, winning performances, the subtle tweaks to each repeat (much like Groundhog Day) and the humanity that prevails over all of the tricksy parallel-universe/alternate timeline stuff all served to enable this to stand tall as a worthy sophomore effort for Moon’s Duncan Jones.
As Jake Gyllenhaal’s primary point of contact outside of the Source Code, Farmiga must keep him calm, focused and more than a little in the dark as to his true plight. And whereas Jeffrey Wright’s Dr Rutledge is able to be portrayed as necessarily more ruthless and unfeeling, Farmiga unites the mission-focus and humanitarian compassion of her character with real adroitness. The “greater good” is served by Gyllenhaal’s mission succeeding, but she is clearly unable to see him as expendable fodder and instead shows compassion for his memories and consciousness.
If that all sounds a little cryptic and cerebral, then the debt the film’s success owes to Farmiga’s performance (and of course those of Gyllenhaal and the delightful Michelle Monaghan) becomes all the more pronounced. For such a high-concept film to not collapse under the weight of its own “big ideas” owes as much to the cast’s performances as it does to Jones’ sure-handed direction.
Ultimately, Farmiga’s Colleen Goodwin feels she owes a debt of honour to a computer read-out being generated by a brain in a jar. For that to work in the context of the film constitutes an impressive achievement by Farmiga.
The Departed seems to have divided audiences and critics more than you would have expected for a prestige, awards-laden Scorsese crime drama. It is undoubtedly loaded with fantastic performances, especially Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg, even though the plot revolves more pointedly around Matt Damon and Leo DiCaprio. But it is also a remake and therefore lacks the originality (and to be honest some of the technical verve) of Scorsese’s best work.
It is of course not Scorsese’s fault that the Academy, as is so often their wont, decided to award him his spectacularly overdue Oscar for a film that is nowhere near his best work (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The King of Comedy and Casino would all have been more deserving), but many were left feeling that The Departed was overly lauded, beyond its just deserts.
But I digress. Farmiga here plays an interesting role, serving as psychiatrist/counsellor for Leo’s troubled undercover cop and while Leo is impressive in his jittery, shifty nervousness, Farmiga mines real depths of compassion and inner conflict, bringing a background character much more to the fore. The fact that the narrative has her bridging the gap between the undercover cop and the gangland mole in the police department obviously adds weight to her part in the proceedings, but Farmiga yet again does a lot with relatively little screen time and as with the above examples plays what feels like an emphatically three-dimensional, unique character, rather than a re-heated version of past performances.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
An almost unbearably painful film to watch, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is an astonishingly affecting film, carried with seemingly effortless conviction by a genuinely faultless cast. David Thewlis is the Nazi officer, relocating with his family from the city to a stark, grey house near the concentration camp of which he is to become commander.
Asa Butterfield is his son, guileless and ultimately undone by his naivety. Rupert Friend excels as a superficially contained but actually seething mass of hostility and brutality. Zac Mattoon O’Brien is the eponymous boy, but then standing astride the whole thing is Farmiga as Thewlis’ wife, anxious about moving their children, concerned for Butterfield’s brittle Bruno, ultimately unconvinced of the rightness of the Final Solution, filled with compassion in the end. She holds her own opposite Thewlis in a number of powerhouse exchanges that express the clear conflicts within German hearts and minds, without feeling trite or preachy.
Ultimately, Farmiga is caught between her concern for her children, her feelings towards the Jews and her husband’s expectation that she be loyal to him and the Fatherland. The scene below is played out with such subtlety that you forget that it feels unlikely that she or anyone else could have gone that far through the process of exterminating the Jews without knowing what was happening, but she sells it effortlessly.
Nothing and no-one is black and white, there is nuance and shade everywhere and the denouement is a kick in the guts that I still have not recovered from. Farmiga imbues her character with heart, veracity and plausibility. Perhaps her best work to date.
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