Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TIFF Review - Barrymore

Chrstopher Plummer may very well be the finest classically trained actor alive today.  If you have any doubts about the veracity of this statement, make a point of seeing Barrymore.

In 1996, Plummer won the Tony for his role in this one-man (well one man + a guy offstage) play about the declining days of actor John Barrymore.  The play came back to Toronto earlier this year, with Plummer once again in the eponymous role. This time around though, it was decided that a a film version should also be produced.  Directed by Erik Canuel (Bon Cop Bad Cop), Barrymore the film is more than a simple documentary-style recording of the play. Canuel didn't simply set up some cameras at a performance; the play was reworked to fit the medium.

Without a doubt, Plummer IS the film.  A tour de force performance, a master class in acting, and deserving of every acting award that can be handed out for this year's movies. Seriously, halfway through I couldn't see anybody else coming close to being as Oscar-worthy as Plummer is here. Expect a rant from me if he's not on the list of nominees. This should be required viewing for anybody who wants to act, so they have a pinnacle to aspire to.

That's not to say the script and direction aren't noteworthy as well, but the command Plummer takes as the iconic actor he portrays eclipses all else.  Switching from congenial and humourous to lost and on the brink of madness to virtuoso performances of Shakespeare, all while recounting his life to that point, John Barrymore evokes sympathy and awe. Raw talent, ego, hedonism, and self-destruction are all laid bare for the audience to experience with the protagonist. Clever directorial choices enhance the experience, and the switch from theatrical to cinematic presentation allows for subtleties and acting choices that wouldn't be available in a live performance.

In fact, the very act of capturing a theatrical performance on film is itself a commentary on John Barrymore. A silent screen star who transitioned to live performances later in his career, with precious few recordings of his Shakespearean work, for which he had received stellar reviews. Plummer is equally renowned for his work on the stage, and this is an excellent means of capturing his intensity and talent in a permanent form.

My screening, the world premiere, was followed by a discussion between Plummer and Atom Egoyan, which made the on-screen performance that much more impressive. A bombastic, overpowering presence on screen as John Barrymore, Plummer was a more subdued, and frankly sane, persona in person. It was a fast reminder of what true acting can be - inhabiting the role as another person, not simply being a variation of your daily self. Add Plummer's long-held idolization of the Barrymore family (pre-Drew), and you can see why so much passion and success can be found in this role.

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