LONDON – You may remember that two years ago, Julia Roberts attracted some attention in awards-watching circles when she held a private industry screening of “Biutiful” in aid of Javier Bardem’s Best Actor campaign — not because she was in any way involved or invested, but simply because she believed the performance was worthy of recognition, and wanted more of her colleagues to see it. We’ll never know how much of an influence Roberts’ efforts had, but together with the attached publicity, they certainly didn’t hurt: Bardem came from behind to score a nomination for a challenging, little-seen foreign film, and in a competitive category to boot.
This trend of peers effectively campaigning for each other looks set to continue, and we had this season’s first instance of it last night at London’s Soho Hotel, where Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie hosted an intimate reception and screening of “The Impossible” — chiefly to talk up the performance of her friend Ewan McGregor. (Before you hit IMDb to jog your memory: no, they’ve never worked together.) I was lucky enough to be in attendance.
McGregor is being campaigned in the Best Supporting Actor category for his performance as a distraught father seeking to reunite his family in Juan Antonio Bayona’s harrowing survival drama set around the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. Naomi Watts is firmly in the hunt for a Best Actress nomination, while 16 year-old newcomer Tom Holland — who is being campaigned, with unusual and commendable integrity, in the lead race — will surely receive his share of breakthrough and young actor citations. But McGregor’s work has, thus far, prompted less awards talk for a turn that’s no less impressive than that of Watts — though his character comes into focus later in the action.
Still, it’s a performance that will find many admirers among those who stick through Bayona’s viscerally moving, technically astonishing film — in particular, one scene in which an emotionally threadbare McGregor barely holds up one half of a phone conversation is Oscar clip-ready, and I mean that in the least cynical way. Yesterday, Jolie offered this tribute to the actor:
“I have known you for years and you are one of my favorite actors and I”ve always loved to watch you, but I watched this and I didn”t recognize you… To say it is one of the best performances of the year, really doesn”t give it credit, because it doesn”t feel like a performance. It”s from such an honest place and so deeply emotional. You rarely see this emotion from a man on screen and I called him later to tell him how much he made me cry. I was crying, and I looked over at Brad [Pitt] and he was crying. It”s just really, really powerful. As an actor, I”m in awe.”
Of course, Jolie didn’t limit her praise to McGregor while introducing “The Impossible,” a film she quipped “I wish I had something to do with.” She also offered warm words of admiration for Holland, who was also in attendance, together with the film’s writer and composer. (Bayona and Watts couldn’t make it, but will be in London for tonight’s UK premiere.) Jolie continued:
“What the filmmakers have done, they have made [the tsunami], through this one family”s story, personal. We feel like we are in it and we travel through it, and it changes us. That is quite an extraordinary thing and I think that is due to the brilliance and the elegance of the script by Sergio Sanchez. You can see the detail and the care that he took when you watch this, and the respect for this family and all of the families involved. When you take a true story like this, to handle it with such delicacy is really to be commended. It is also masterfully directed by J.A. Bayona, and there will be many scenes where you will be sitting here watching it thinking, ‘How did they do that? That is insane! I don”t understand.’ I was asking them myself and they said, ‘Don”t you know? Aren”t you an actor?’ And I said, ‘It is just beyond imagination.’
“The true testament of any film is what you walk away with, and I think in this film you walk away with more empathy, with a greater sense of connection to your fellow man, and you want to run home and hug your kids, and tell the people you love that you love them. There is no greater message and this is an extraordinary film.”
“Beyond imagination” is apt choice of words: it’s the film’s skill in realizing an experience effectively unimaginable to anyone but its survivors that distinguish it from the rest of the prestige pack this season — as physical, sensation-based filmmaking, it bears comparison with the work of Spielberg and Cameron. Summit has posed themselves a challenge by releasing “The Impossible” in the thick of December, but if enough Academy members make time to watch it, many of them will find themselves as profoundly affected as Jolie.
I had a brief chat with McGregor, and seeing him in typically genial, relaxed mode only highlighted how contrastingly frayed and beaten he is in the film; he described it as the most challenging work of his career. McGregor has, of course, never been recognized by the Academy — partly, I suspect, because he excels at playing everymen. As a natural movie star, his best performances tend to look easier than they are: he was as worthy as his Oscar-winning co-star Christopher Plummer in “Beginners,” for example, but it was an evocation of anguish too subtle — too casual, even — to register with voters. In “The Impossible,” he’s crying out louder — let’s see if they hear him this year.