What a sad loss – Tom Wilkinson was quietly and consistently wonderful – The Guardian


From “The Full Monty” to “In the Bedroom” to “Michael Clayton” to “Eternal Sunshine,” the actor, who has died aged 75, was an intelligent and understated delight

For British film audiences of a certain generation, there is one image of Tom Wilkinson that will always encapsulate his hold on our hearts: the image of a chubby, respectable guy in the welfare queue, wearing an anorak over his collar and tie wears a bunch of other depressed but much younger and scruffier men who were shyly, almost unconsciously, practicing a few swaying erotic dance moves to the accompaniment of Donna Summer's Hot Stuff.

Tom Wilkinson: The full Tommy

He is the staid, uptight Gerald in the 1997 British comedy The Full Monty, the former supervisor at the Sheffield steelworks who, like the workers under him, was fired but, unlike them, initially tried to hide his humiliating unemployment from him to hide his wife. But Gerald swallows his pride and joins the bizarre male striptease troupe of guys whose masculinity was once closely tied to their role as breadwinner and who are now symbolically reduced to earning a few pounds, which is at the height of a terrible one Unsexy, the same reduced masculinity is revealed by the dance routine. It was a wonderfully tender, funny, kind-hearted and endearing performance from Wilkinson: he was the authority figure, the teacher/boss/father character who had to get off his high horse and admit that he was just as lonely and unhappy and miserable took help like everyone else. It was a role Wilkinson knew how to play instinctively, showing vulnerability in sullenness.

Wilkinson in Shakespeare in Love. Photo: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Wilkinson was a revered performer in British cinema before The Full Monty: he was the dying Mr. Dashwood in Ang Lee's 1995 film Sense and Sensibility and the irritable lawyer Frank Braithwaite in David Hare's underrated 1984 classic Wetherby. But it was The Full Monty that caught the attention of every casting director on both sides of the Atlantic and made him the Rolls-Royce of British film character actors: an actor so versatile, so confident, so intelligent and yet so discreet is – and with such a convincing American accent – that everything he did was a real star. He was able to spice up what in other hands might have been an identical role played by a middle-aged man with irony, comedy or tragedy. In a similar mood to The Full Monty, albeit in a more comic role, he played the absurd and staged moneylender Fennyman in John Madden's Shakespeare in Love in 1998, who is persuaded to forgive debts in exchange for a small role to get into Shakespeare's new play Romeo and Juliet.

In “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michael Gondry, he was the white-clad Dr. Mierzwiak, the CEO of a company that specializes in erasing painful emotional memories from people's minds, and Wilkinson casually deliver the film's most quoted line to Jim Carrey's lovelorn Joel, who nervously asked if the operation would cause brain damage could cause: “Technically,” Wilkinson says with casual politeness, “this procedure is brain damage.” And in a sinister way that one might say foreshadows the world of abuse and #MeToo, has Dr. Mierzwiak erased the memory of their sexual liaison from the consciousness of Kirsten Dunst's unhappy character Mary.

Wilkinson perhaps excelled in extremely serious, small roles (and there were many), whose banal ordinariness and unwavering familiarity he could infuse with something heavy, serious – and tragic. In Tony Gilroy's 2007 corporate thriller Michael Clayton (starring George Clooney as the brooding, shady creator of the title), he played high-powered lawyer Arthur Edens. However, this is not a role where wearing suits is monotonous: in fact, his character has a serious psychotic episode – and perhaps only Wilkinson had the seriousness and classically trained grandiosity to sell this role, particularly his opening speech, in which he manically blusters to Clayton is practically the film's identity, its tortured soul, its sense of something sinister within the corporate culture.

Wilkinson in Michael Clayton. Photo: Myles Aronowitz/Warner Bros./Allstar

He was an overwhelmingly menacing and predatory Pieter Van Ruijven, the wealthy patron of the artist Vermeer in Peter Webber's 2003 The Girl with a Pearl Earring: a rich man who believes he has a right to everything, including the beautiful young ones Woman in Vermeer's service, Griet, played by Scarlett Johansson, makes creepy advances while modestly busying herself with laundry. A great scene for both.

Tom Wilkinson: Down with the big boys

But Wilkinson's acting masterpiece – and there are so many to choose from – was probably Todd Field's 2001 “In the Bedroom,” in which he played the family man under unbearable stress. He is a wealthy and respected doctor in New England, married to a woman, played by Sissy Spacek, whose own excellence matches his perfectly. When her adult son, played by Nick Stahl, who has a brilliant academic career in the Ivy League ahead of him, gets into a terrible situation with an older married woman who lives nearby, Wilkinson's caring, protective father figure begins to take charge to break under the pressure of disobeying the law and disregarding his own secret involvements.

It is a very American story and yet with something highly European in its emphasis on the inner dynamics of family psychology: one could almost imagine Bergman taking an interest in the project. I was Wilkinson, almost visibly vibrating like a pressure cooker about to explode, which gives the film so much of its emotional power.

Wilkinson has long been the benchmark for acting technique on the big screen, made all the more valuable for his understated restraint. For as long as I've been writing about movies, his presence on any cast list has been enough to make you sit up and pay a little more attention because you knew he would bring a touch of class to this film. Wit, style, pathos and often a very English decency. Its complexity and intelligence were unmatched.


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