Take One: War Horse (2011)
There’s a plethora of male British thespian talent in Steven Spielberg’s equine weepy War Horse: Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Mullen, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Marsan, Liam Cunningham and David Thewlis all add their tuppence-worth to the tale of Joey the one-stallion battalion and his toilsome travels through WWI. But Kebbell’s scenes, late in the film, were among the most subtly affecting. [SPOILER] Kebbel's 'Geordie Soldier' does more than keep watch from the trenches. He risks his life to free Joey from the barbed wire he’s trapped in, thus saving his life and eventually reuniting him with his real owner Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Waving the white flag, Kebbell’s brave soldier crosses the battle lines into No Man’s Land. A German soldier with a handy pair of wire-cutters joins him to further Joey’s wartime journey. (The scene, featuring stunning photography, was apparently achieved in only three takes.)
Kebbell’s even gets the honor of verbalising the film’s title:
You’re a war horse... what a strange beast you are”
Everyone brushes manes with Joey, but Kebbell gets to extend his welcome and stay a key presence for the remainder of the film. More than the other characters, his portion of War Horse allows him to take direct narrative action that cements further meaning within the plot (that both sides can actually peacefully work together). The playful banter with the German soldier, mixed with his moment of bravery and all-round affable characterisation, make Kebbell’s contribution stand out.
Take Two: Wilderness (2006)
Michael J. Bassett’s outdoor killer-thriller Wilderness is essentially another psycho-on-the-loose horror. The plot is fairly rote: a group of young offenders are sent to an isolated island-based army training zone, where a killer with a personal grudge is individually picking them off. The peril contained in the performances, especially Kebbell’s, as moody headcase Callum, raises it above its shopworn set-up. After supporting roles in the likes of Match Point, Dead Man’s Shoes and Alexander, Wilderness finally gave Kebbell the opportunity to fully show off his considerable acting ability -- for those few who saw it at least; Wilderness had a rather modest UK release.
Kebbell literally sets himself apart from the pack by acting out in worryingly strange ways. He’s blamed for the killings early on and therefore has to prove his innocence and worth. This allows him a touch more nuance than the rest of the cast. The actor shades Callum with enough greys that he doesn’t adhere to easy cliché; this is the shouty-sweary Brit hooligan act, but with a fresher slant a willingness to explore weirder terrain. Covering himself in the blood of one of the killer’s dogs that he decapitates, and holding its head aloft whilst screaming from the top of a mountain is just one of the many deranged choices Callum makes. Whether this is all part of his plan to help save the others or to assert his crazy leadership is anyone’s guess. But the actor makes Wilderness feel like Lord of the Flies-meets-Predator for a short and enticing spell.
Take Three: RocknRolla (2008)
In the four years since Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla premiered one of its stars has gone stratospheric: Tom Hardy is very much a man of the moment. His co-star Kebbell is, by and large, still awaiting his Hollywood boom moment. Until that happens we’ll have to make do with his small finely-crafted characters like this off-the-wall junkie rock star Johnny Quid. I say finely-crafted – Quid is more erratically thrust from the screen thanks to Kebbell's boisterous energy. Toned and topless (save for the scenes when he sports an ostentatious coat or two), Quid sings to the Clash’s "Bankrobber" like a demented karaoke star and swirls a pair of guns as if he’s an underworld cowboy. There's a London-cool aura within his unhinged persona. He’s often mouth agape, having just delivered, or about to deliver, rants filled with comically juicy asides or verbal abuse.
These kinds of larger-than-life characters are what Guy Ritchie do best but thankfully Kebbell imbues Quid with the right amount of angry zest. Tongue-in-cheek lines like, “Don’t hurt me Archy, I’m only little,” (when Mark Strong’s henchman has him pinned to a wall) mark him as a particularly weaselly charmer; indeed, this line is beloved by many of the film’s fans.
His lively, piss-taking routine works so well he out-Russell Brands Russell Brand. (Just think about Arthur remade with Toby Kebbell instead of Brand and imagine what a better film it might’ve been.) Kebbell's gives this violent crazy a particularly nasty edge but the oversize role is more than just screen presence. His baffling yet oddly moving speech about cigarettes being a metaphor for life (don’t ask), delivered whilst he mournfully plays the piano, carries dramatic weight, too. Someone should cast him in a kinetically imaginative Shakespeare adaptation and let him really off the leash.
Three more films for the taking: Dead Man’s Shoes (2004), Control (2007), Black Mirror: The Entire History of You (TV/2011)