Polly Walker proves she's far more than just another absolutely perfect face

September 09, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

From a distance, glimpsed across an open restaurant, she's just a long beanstalk of a woman, her face murkily hidden under a helmet of thatchy hair. She's dressed in some ill-fitting jersey, with a vest, a pair of sandals, those black tights all the young women wear nowadays, entirely nondescript. She could be sitting in a railway station, but in fact she's scarfing down salad as if there's no tomorrow.

Then you get close, are introduced, and pull up a chair and wander into the Polly-zone, and are blown away. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

Polly Walker, 26, at the end of the most astonishing summer of her life, has bones to die for and on top of the bones is the face and the face is to die for too, as countless thousands of moviegoers are just discovering. In "Patriot Games," in a red wig and black underwear, she blows away an IRA leader and flees with Patrick Bergin to Libya. It's nearly a wordless part, but the catlike intensity of those blazing eyes imprints her in your mind long after the whorls of Byzantine plot have vanished. It will probably make her a star, even if "Enchanted April" hadn't come along.

But it did. In "Enchanted April," which is currently doing very well at the Rotunda and will soon move to other venues, she plays the languid, glamorous Lady Caroline Dester, a bright young thing in the 1920s who agrees to go off to an Italian castle to rusticate with three more mundane women because she's oh so very tired of being at the center of things. When that exhausted look comes across that utterly perfect face, a good half of the audience melts.

In fact, such is the power of Walker's mug -- she's a kind of anti-Medusa, if you get down to it. Miramax chose it as the central icon in the film's advertising campaign, and also chose to underwrite the ever-adventurous Walker on a cross-country tour to tout the film, which is why she spent an afternoon in Baltimore last week.

But it, far more than the expensive version of the Tom Clancy film, proved that she was much more than face. This is not surprising, considering that she studied at the Drama Center, worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Old Vic.

"I figured 'Enchanted April' wouldn't be a bad film," Walker says, gulping down a bit of salad. "I'd read the novel and it was all right, and of course I knew all the others -- Miranda [Richardson], Joan [Plowright] and Josie [Lawrence]. But still, the night before, I called my mother and cried and cried. I didn't think I could do it at all. But once it started, it was all right."

Her major problem -- we should all have such problems! -- was keeping her tan hidden. Walker lives a sort of outdoorsy life with her boyfriend, mysteriously described as "an Italian industrialist." She's got one of those year-round mocha complexions, but Lady Caroline's face, though beautiful, called for artistic pallor. This was achieved with much powder.

"Except in one scene, they forgot to do my arm. And when I see the film today, I always notice that brown arm and that white face."

She makes little face, like a Girl Scout whose just tasted her first pickle, and the experience briefly wrinkles her pert features up into an icky knot before it allows her to relax them.

As for the gigantic "Patriot Games," she says, "I knew what I was going into. I knew how far my character went. I tried to make the best of it. My character wasn't a brain surgeon. I do wish I had a line or two. It was just something to be gotten through."

Although Walker made a point of reading the Elizabeth von Arnim novel on which "Enchanted April" was based, she stayed clear of the Tom Clancy book that was the basis of "Patriot Games."

Sounding a little like Lady Caroline, she moaned, "Isn't he one of those people who know what kinds of bullet goes into what kind of gun? It's so boring. Really, I couldn't stand it."

Walker has appeared in two other films, and her career doesn't sound like a typical beauty's path to the top. One, a French art movie called "Lews Equilibriste," allowed her "to smoke Gauloises and pretend like I was a French film star. I also wanted to work in another language." She played Jean Genet's false girlfriend and seduced a Moroccan tightrope walker Genet was interested in.

The other is a new version of Kafka's "The Trial," in which she's Leni, the girl with the webbed hand. It doesn't sound like much, but she's paired with Anthony Hopkins, Jason Robards and Kyle MacLachlan.

"I'm trying to avoid playing bimbos," she says. "I wouldn't like to play somebody's girlfriend who gets in and out of bed -- or somebody who gets gang-raped and shot in the head. I want to do good things, across the board. In my acting, I'm just trying to be as truthful as possible."

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