The broad range of Jim Broadbent

The actor shines in each film, including his latest, 'Iris,' in which he plays a literary critic watching his wife fade into dementia.


February 10, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

NEW YORK -- American arthouse audiences first fell for Jim Broadbent 11 years ago, when he appeared in Mike Leigh's sublime Life Is Sweet (1990). Broadbent plays a husband and father who manages an industrial kitchen and dreams of his own business; he idles around the house with an inertia that speaks volumes about the weekend laziness afflicting the working man. Then he snaps into ramrod control when he commands his kitchen.

Broadbent appears to be totally natural in this small-scale masterpiece, though now he admits he was on a campaign "to get over that alarm when you see the lens 2 feet from your face" and "to relax on camera, which is the key." His performance compelled the question: Who is this brilliant and robust comedian, and how vast is his range?

The range part got answered when he struck gold twice more with Leigh. In the 1992 short film A Sense of History (which Broadbent also wrote), he's an affably malignant aristocrat (the movie is like Kind Hearts and Coronets boiled down into one character and done in 22 minutes). And in Topsy-Turvy (1999) he is the dour, brilliant and hilarious W.S. Gilbert -- both a wonderfully bizarre, endlessly entertaining character and, thanks to Broadbent's inside-out interpretation, one of the few spot-on depictions of an artistic innovator in any movie.

The year 2001 gave us Broadbent's movie career in miniature. First came a high-sitcom supporting role as a confused and cuckolded father in Bridget Jones' Diary, then a mad, stylized caricature of a nightclub impresario in Moulin Rouge. It's all part of his campaign "to go with something that surprises me" and prevent himself from reaching his "boredom threshold." He went from those two films to six months playing the young Boss Tweed in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York (scheduled for release this year). And now, in Iris (opening Friday after December engagements in New York and Los Angeles), he offers a beautifully empathetic portrait of the aging English literary critic John Bayley. The movie depicts how Bayley's love for his wife -- the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, played by Judi Dench -- is tested when she succumbs to Alzheimer's disease. Broadbent's performance already has won a Golden Globe and awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review; he is also up for a British Academy Award. Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday.

All the performances in Iris are so persuasive that I rushed from a Manhattan screening room to a cafe interview with Broadbent under the impression that Broadbent played Bayley as a youthful man, too. Even though I knew that Kate Winslet and not Dench played the younger Murdoch, there was such a continuity of expression between the young and old Bayley that I couldn't wait to ask Broadbent how he pulled it off.

"There are two actors," he said, setting me straight immediately, and kindly adding, "Don't worry; you're not the first." (Hugh Bonneville plays the young Bayley.) Then he opened up about his intelligent, intuitive and self-effacing artistry. Only his friends and close collaborators may know exactly who Broadbent is, but audiences and critics get the pleasure of savoring his ability to put his imprint on a marvelous variety of characters -- and to make the best of them marvelously various. Here are some of his thoughts about finding drama in "a soft, gentle man."

So if there are two of you playing Bayley, how did you come up with such a seamless character?

Hugh Bonneville and I worked together in the theater before, so we knew each other well -- we had done an Alan Bennett play, Habeas Corpus, with Sam Mendes [American Beauty] as the director, about six years ago. It never occurred to us that we were in any way similar. But we listened to the same audio tapes, so we had the same sort of vocal reference. And then it was up to Hugh, really, because Judi and I did our stuff first, and then Hugh and Kate did their stuff afterwards.

The way you bring Bayley to life, he's almost like a comic hero in a tragedy -- he's quizzical, watchful and determined to be hopeful until it's no longer possible even to hope.

I think he's a profoundly eccentric man. We've understated his stammer and his eccentric dress sense. He's a fine writer and observer, obviously, and he's got a brilliant mind. He is also child-like and self-deprecating. He was totally in love with Iris. Now he's married again and totally in love with his new wife.

Did you do much background reading before you attempted such a literary role?

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