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Take Three: Samantha Morton

Craig here with the penultimate ‘Take Three’. This week: Samantha Morton...

The Artists are present: Samantha Morton (and Marina Abramovic) doing jury duty in Venice right now

She's currently advising R-Pattz in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis on screen and serving as a jury member on the 69th Venice Film Festival off screen.

Take One: Under the Skin (1997)
After some acclaimed TV and short film work, Morton made her feature bow in Carine Adler’s Under the Skin. In it she plays Iris, a girl selfdestructing and suffering due to the death of her mother. In this blistering debut Morton flits between girlish abandon and hot-tempered wilfulness. At times the camera has trouble keeping up with her as she weaves through life picking up numerous sexual conquests in retaliation for not being able to confront her grief. Other times, the camera can’t seem to pull away from its close focus on Morton’s expressive face, as in the scene where she enters a church and tearfully gazes at the congregation.

Iris’s spiralling descent into sexual oblivion is every bit as bruising and obsessive as, say, Michael Fassbender’s Shame odyssey – but come from a far more challenging viewpoint. (Whatever Fassbender’s Brandon did, he never had a guy piss on him for empty thrills – something Iris experiences here.) Iris vainly makes herself over by donning her dead mother’s clothes, wigs and makeup in an attempt to ‘become’ her in order to keep the memory close. Morton subtly alters Iris’ actions by veering between this maternal imitation and the fractured shell of a girl she really is. Authenticity is paramount to Morton and she shrewdly maintains a delicate balance between sexually assertive and introverted that never feels contrived or tied up in actorly affectation. She's always been a risk taker and has kept it real from day one.

Morton putting on a different face in "Under the Skin"

Control and The Messenger after the jump

Take Two: Control (2007)
One of the key creative decisions director Anton Corbijn and scriptwriter Matt Greenhalgh make in Control is how to convincingly portray Ian Curtis’ wife, Deborah. Since Curtis was such an idolised figure, the focus on his upward trajectory and downward suicidal slide was the one thing they needed to nail with accuracy, lest hardcore fans cry foul. The film is based on material in Deborah Curtis’ book "Touching from a Distance" so her perspective is inherent but Greenhalgh’s script allows ample space for Morton to both believably complement and counteract Sam Riley's Curtis.

The (un)Happy Couple in "Control". Samantha Morton and Sam Riley

Morton fleshes Deborah out in such a way on screen that we instinctively understand who she was in relation to the icon. Morton plays her with bright naivety in the earlier scenes, where the newly-married couple jaunt about the mid-seventies Macclesfield club circuit. But as Ian is pulled away and, indeed, apart by media, epilepsy and success the film darkens and Morton’s performance takes on a desperate dramatic edge. Left to bring up their child alone, and to ponder the possible loss of her husband, Deborah despairs. Though the narrative primarily follows Curtis’ musical/sexual endeavours it doesn’t forget the woman suffering back home and Morton turns what could’ve been a hand-wringing, clichéd portrayal (the long suffering spouse) into a fresh and affecting performance, one that truly earns our sympathy. Deborah’s late-night confrontation with Ian over his mistress is distressingly believable, Morton’s nervous panic over his infidelity ringing painfully true. She compels in these scenes, but it’s her final moment – where she discovers Ian’s body and runs out into the street crying for help – that hits home hardest.

Take Three: The Messenger (2008)
In Oren Moverman’s military-grief drama, Morton beautifully captures the sense of normality caving in on itself when news of death arrives at the door. Morton’s army wife Olivia Pitterson discovers she's a widow immediately and her pitch-perfect response is as subtly riveting as it's quietly wrenching. We see Olivia going about her mundane daily routine: pegging the washing out, her hair yanked into a sloppy ponytail, spare t-shirt hanging off her, no trace of needless makeup. We know she’s a hard-working mother, a woman with a life made up of phone calls and letters to an overseas husband she hasn’t seen in ages. It’s clear she already knows the outcome when she sees Casualty Notification Officers Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster arrive in her garden to tell her that her husband’s been killed in combat. In a cogent display of crucial underplaying, Morton gives us everything we need to know about Olivia’s life. We can intuit all her lonely days, weeks, months, of mental preparation for such inevitable news, the resigned acceptance for this dark day in plain sight. Her almost mechanically formal response seems awkward (“how did it happen?” she blankly inquires, instead of typically breaking down in floods of tears; “Thanks... I know this can’t be easy for you,” she says with two firm handshakes, fully understanding the practical toils of military life), but Morton’s perceptive work makes us see just how internally devastated Olivia is without ever resorting to familiar theatrics. She combines genuine pathos and tender sincerity to create a unique perspective on a lonely widow finding renewed affection through mourning.

Three more films for the taking: Sweet and Lowdown (1999), Minority Report (2002), Mister Lonely (2007)

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Reader Comments (11)

Such a terrific actress, and you didn't even mention her great work in Morvern Callar and In America.

September 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWill H

Her throat-grabbing work in Minority Report made my unofficial Oscar ballot.

September 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter4rtful

Her delivery of "WHAT!" in The Messenger grabs the essence of the angry, war-torn American. Such dimension....

September 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

Morton is such a versatile performer and it surprises all the more because (albeit, apropos of nothing) her general persona seems so unassuming. I hesitate to say she's my favourite actor of her age range, but at her best she's at the top. Her work in THE MESSENGER is, maybe, at the top of the offerings from me but her startlingly profound work in MINORITY REPORT is one I always remember first.

September 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

I'd add Morvern Callar...she was great in that.

September 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbia


Such an extraordinarily wonderful actress. 50 years from now, Actressexuals of the future will be gagging over her fantastic, extremely versatile work and wondering why she wasn't being over-joyously appreciated in her time. The Messenger is a real highlight for me -- she gives SO much in that movie, it's kinda crazy the film managed to regain its focus back at all. I love what Rich @ fourfour wrote of her performance in the film when it first came out:

Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster are as amazing as everyone says they are, but for me, Samantha Morton was most compelling thing about this movie. She inhabits her white trash character with enough uncanniness to make Rob Zombie jealous. This woman’s skill is catastrophic in that it is immediately devastating. The world of cinema is a better place with her in it.

She's also great in this small HBO/BBC tv movie called Longford, for which she's won her only major American award so far, a Golden Globe.

September 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

I was so confused when the Weinstein's never made an effort to get Morton an Oscar nomination for "Control".

September 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

I thought she was so good in Synecdoche. Her character kinda broke my heart.

September 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCaden

I have not seen all of her movies, but the ones I have seen, I think she is a marvelous actress.

September 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrick

I immediately thought of Morvern Callar and Minority Report too. Good write up though! I'll definitely have to check out Control since I haven't seen it. Love her.

September 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Heffler

I watched The Messenger for the first time last night. I'm still shaken by Sam.

September 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGustavo
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