Peering through glasses, speaking in a reserved tone, Col. Rudolf Abel of the NKVD is nobody's idea of a Russian secret agent. He's played by the British actor Mark Rylance in Steven Spielberg's Cold War thriller, Bridge of Spies. All on his own, Rylance raises the film several notches, from admirable to superb, making it one of the first-class cinematic events of 2015. Whenever he's on the screen we sense that something surprising and important is about to happen. By 1962, the record says, Rudolph Abel had served four years in a US penitentiary for running a spy ring in New York. His lawyer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), arranged to trade him for an American pilot, Gary Powers, captured when his U2 spy-plane was taking photographs over Russia. The film script tells us that at this point Abel had no idea what his NKVD masters were planning for him. Maybe they assumed he had told the Americans all his secrets, so he could be heading straight to Siberia or a firing squad.
Rylance gives him a cool demeanour, suggesting he thinks about his destiny objectively, as if from outside himself. With an ironic tone he accepts his possibly tragic role in Great Power machinations.
Rylance's Abel refuses to succumb to self-pity. The script supports that view. When he's asked, "Aren't you worried?", he answers, "Would it help?"(In real life, Abel lived for another nine years in the Soviet Union, and in 1990 his face appeared on a Russian postage stamp, depicting him as a hero.)
Watching Rylance, I remembered a remark by David Thomson, the British-American writer who is often called the best living film critic. Thomson's love for actors as a class is uncritical and he believes others feel the same way. In his recent book, Why Acting Matters (Yale University Press) he says, "We revere them, we need them. They nourish us." Rylance digs so deeply into his characters, and presents them to us with such originality, that the word "nourish" doesn't seem an exaggeration. Actors become part of our mental landscape, turning words and gestures, frowns and smiles, into undeniable facts that become enduring memories. Their art requires them to be real and fake, at the same time. Watching them accomplish that trick is a privilege, particularly when, like Rylance, they do it without apparent strain.
Rylance is mainly a stage actor, holder of Olivier bestactor awards in London and Tony best-actor awards in New York. He's played Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was the first artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre from 1995 to 2005, acting and directing in each season. A writer in the Guardian ventured, "Rylance is the world's greatest actor."
His rich experience has given him the insight to carve out a fresh, subtle performance like his Rudolf Abel. He was even more impressive playing Thomas Cromwell, consigliere to Henry VIII, in Wolf Hall, the six-part BBC series adapted from Hilary Mantel's challenging and vibrant historical novels.
Wolf Hall, as a TV series, demonstrates why moviegoers and television viewers must be forever grateful to D.W. Griffith for developing the close-up. The director, Peter Kosminsky, tells much of the story through Rylance's subtle expressions.
Someone has already suggested that Rylance should receive a special award for lurking, which he does uncommonly well. In several crucial scenes Cromwell watches events from a hall just outside a room where others are revealing their desires and schemes. As he listens in silence, we know he's considering his next move upward. At the beginning of the English Reformation, the delicate shifting of power - religious power, sexual power, political power - is shaping the future of the Englishspeaking people.
Rylance's Cromwell is clever, restrained and thoughtful, a listener rather than a talker - not at all the bumptious Cromwell of the history books. Perhaps his driven character appealed to Rylance, who is driven in his own way. He's said that in adolescence he felt compelled to go on the stage: "I just absolutely needed the theatre so desperately, it was my fate, it was where I was running towards, it was the place where I found peace and survival."
The audience watches a career like Rylance's with close attention. We sense that he's
doing something that matters to him, and often he makes it matter to us as well. A key pleasure in watching drama is the chance it gives us to reflect on the maturing of talented, resourceful actors like Rylance, Claire Danes and Michael Keaton.
Danes attracted widespread attention when Homeland appeared on TV in 2011. She played a CIA agent who suspected that a presumably heroic Marine sergeant (Damian Lewis) was a spy for radical Islamists. She was impressive and memorable, but we couldn't guess that Danes and her character Carrie would be with us for more than four years. The Marine hero is gone and most of the other characters with him, but Danes proved so supple and audacious that she held our attention through half a dozen plot changes. The fifth season wound up last week, dominated by Danes, now established as a phenomenon of television.
Keaton reveals a fresh dimension of his talent in Spotlight. The film's subject is the Boston Globe's investigation of the extent of child sexual abuse by priests in the city's Roman Catholic parishes. Tom McCarthy directs the material with convincing precision, concentrating on the gathering of information. Keaton plays Robby Robinson, the no-nonsense head of the Globe's investigative unit. Keaton made his reputation in light comedies and in fantasies directed by Tim Burton - Beetlejuice, Batman and Batman Returns. In the wonderfully imaginative Birdman, he plays Riggan Thomson, a rueful, bitter actor eager to make a new start on Broadway. In Spotlight he's a dogged, dedicated journalist who runs a crusade without ever looking like a crusader. And once again he looks like a master of his craft.