This May, Carey Mulligan once again returns to the genre that launched her into acting: the period drama. Having brought some of Jane Austen’s most vivid characters to life, Mulligan will now try her hand at Hardy in Thomas Vinterberg and David Nicholls’ adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd.
Mulligan’s early acting work is found largely in literary adaptations, including a miniseries of Bleak House, Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (2005) and ITV’s pitch-perfect 2007 film of Northanger Abbey. In the latter, Mulligan and co-star Felicity Jones are a formidable duo, with Jones embodying Catherine’s wide-eyed naivety and Mulligan capturing Isabella Thorpe’s brazenness and bizarre instant intensity. No wonder the two both seem set to climb the ranks of British acting royalty.
In just six years Mulligan went from playing the petulant Kitty, the most infamously overlooked of Pride and Prejudice’s Bennet sisters – at least as Kitty herself would see it – to being Ryan Gosling’s love interest in 2011’s Drive. Mulligan even has a West End stage credit to her name, having starred alongside Bill Nighy in Skylight. Yet it was in her 2009 releases that Mulligan first delivered on the promise of her early turns in TV and film adaptations of literary classics. Sundance of that year was a particular high point, with Mulligan starring in two dramas screening at the festival.
The better known of these is Lone Scherfig’s An Education, an adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir of the same name, scripted by Nick Hornby. While the real Lynn Barber is now infamous for her acerbic and brutal interviews of only the bravest of celebrities, Carey Mulligan supplied the requisite youthful vulnerability as a fictionalised version of the younger Barber. Mulligan’s 16-year-old Jenny, like Barber in real life, finds herself seduced by a much older man.
As Jenny, Mulligan provided an ideal balance of innocence and spikiness, even managing to set herself apart from an excellent supporting cast. The strength of acting and characterisation cannot be overstated; An Education includes subtly hilarious turns from Alfred Molina and Rosamund Pike, a charming yet insidiously unsettling Peter Sarsgaard, and a bristling cameo from Emma Thompson as the headteacher of Jenny’s school.
Mulligan aptly conveys anxiety through her posture and makes us cringe along with her in the more intimate scenes with her lover David (Sarsgaard), though arguably her greatest chemistry is with Olivia Williams. Williams plays Jenny’s English teacher, offering a sharp contrast to the more traditional teachers, and making a significant contribution to the film’s commentary on the choices available to women in twentieth century Britain.
For An Education, see 1.16-2.27
An Education may have been a spectacular breakthrough, but Mulligan’s performance in the lower profile The Greatest also deserves a look. It may not leave much to the imagination, but the trailer establishes the film’s fruitful dramatic premise; after the death of her boyfriend (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) a pregnant teen (Mulligan) is forced to move in with his disapproving parents. There’s a convenient dichotomy in the way the parents’ grief is expressed; Susan Sarandon’s Grace reacts by throwing cruel remarks around – mainly at Mulligan’s Rose – whereas Pierce Brosnan reverts to almost doormat-like reasonableness. Thankfully, Rose is better characterised, and Mulligan excels with the complexities of her character, evocatively conveying both the euphoria of a first love and the confusion of her later situation.
Fresh from her Oscar nomination for An Education, Mulligan starred in the 2010 adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go. Unfortunately though, some of her recent parts have been less interesting than that provided by the moral dilemma/love triangle collision of Never Let Me Go. This is most true of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, in which Mulligan appears as Jean, a reluctant friend and sometime mistress of Oscar Isaac’s title character. In the film’s latter half Jean is completely brushed under the rug by the script, yet Mulligan makes the most of the screentime she does get. She may not get the American accent completely down in this case – though her pronunciation of ‘condom’ is perfect – but there’s not a trace of An Education in this performance, which is testament to her versatility.
In Drive and Shame, as well as Inside Llewyn Davis, Mulligan plays beautiful women who are peripheral to and yet unobtainable for near-silent male protagonists. Drive is almost entirely Ryan Gosling’s film, and Mulligan’s first appearance emphasises this; she’s glimpsed in the left-hand side of the frame as we follow Gosling through the opening credits. Mulligan and Gosling are an ideal casting match, both turning in subdued performances totally fitting with the film’s aesthetic and tone, particularly the way its first half washes over you. As Irene, Mulligan conveys so much while appearing to do very little; her subtle facial movements in the scene which marks her husband’s return from prison suggest both the joy Irene hopes to show, and the doubts coursing below the surface.
Director Nicholas Winding Refn often chose to shoot his characters in profile on Drive, but this was no hindrance to Mulligan, who seems to perform better when filmmakers are less concerned with drawing attention to her looks. By contrast, in his ridiculously excessive The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann’s vision imbued Mulligan with an airbrushed appearance. Mulligan, for her part, endowed Daisy with the kind of confident poise glimpsed in her earlier period dramas, but unfortunately wasn’t given much to do other than simper and twirl.
Steve McQueen’s Shame afforded better opportunities. Apparently having noticed Mulligan’s affinity for vibrant voiceover (see The Greatest trailer), McQueen cast Mulligan as Sissy, a character who is first introduced as an audio-only interruption to Brandon (Michael Fassbender)’s orderly and sterile world by means of a voicemail message. Once arriving in the flesh, the vivacious Sissy tortures Brandon with her confident sensuality, though Mulligan is subtle enough to create ambiguity – it’s difficult to tell whether Sissy is fully aware of her effect on Brandon. Spending much of the film in a state of mania, Sissy is the frenetic foil to Mulligan’s more understated characters.
Signs suggest her Bathsheba Everdene in the upcoming Far from the Madding Crowd will be a subversively strong woman comparable to Jennifer Lawrence’s Serena, though hopefully surrounded by a superior film. If not, we can at least pin our hopes on her next project, Suffragette, penned by McQueen’s Shame collaborator Abi Morgan. At this rate, Carey Mulligan will be upstaging Meryl Streep any day now.