On days such as today, it can feel like we are getting somewhere in the quest for gender equality. The sheer number of people talking about International Women’s Day is marvellously encouraging, and while there is still a LONG way to go, I believe we’re headed in the right direction.
When we get ‘there’, we won’t need posts such as this one. Despite an increasing number of brilliant roles, women are still massively under-represented and under-valued by the film industry. Here I have picked out 10 of my favourites since 2010; Michael Bay and the Frat Pack could learn a whole lot from these women. Post your suggestions below, on Twitter, Facebook, or just knowingly grumble about the ones I’ve missed.
Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur (2011)
Best known for comedic parts in Hot Fuzz and as Sophie, the object of Mark Corrigan’s lust in Peep Show, Colman’s first leading film role was as Hannah, a quiet Christian who takes a violent neighbour under her wing in Tyrannosaur. The film and Hannah’s life are desperately dark and unsettling; there is a range of domestic violence as chilling as anything I have seen on screen. However Colman gives a performance of such humanity and truth that you are never entirely overwhelmed by the sadness. She has gone on to greater success, most recently in Broadchurch, but it is here that she displays her talent as a woman who is emotionally and physically brutalised, but finds an inner strength to carry herself through.
Bérénice Bejo, The Artist (2011)
In silent films the actors’ faces can be so crucial; there have been few as lively or memorable as that of Bérénice Bejo, co-star of Oscar darling The Artist. She provided laughter throughout as Peppy Miller, the eager young actress who dances her way to stardom while her friend George Valentin goes the other way. She matched Jean Dujardin smile for smile, and while he got the major acclaim, it is her mixture of liveliness and empathy that give the film real heart. Do not miss Bejo in Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, where she shows an entirely different emotional range but to no less effect.
Felicity Jones, Like Crazy (2012)
After Garden State Hollywood’s supply of Manic Pixie Dream Girls started to overflow; quirky women who show up at just the right time in the lives of mumbly, insecure men. In Like Crazy Felicity Jones destroys that cliche several times over. The film is ostensibly about a young couple in a long-distance relationship, but it is Jones’ beautiful fragility that makes it such a great watch. Anna is no idealised girl saving Anton Yelchin’s mopey Jacob; Like Crazy is her story as much as, if not more than it is his. Shot with a modified DSLR on a minuscule budget, every movement in Jones’ face feels like one we have lived ourselves. All this and she did her own make-up…
Alicia Vikander, A Royal Affair (2012)
Love triangles have been very popular at the movies in recent years, evidenced by the Twilight and The Hunger Games series (and even a bit in the last Harry Potter…) More emotional than any of these, though, is A Royal Affair, led by an astounding performance from Swedish actor Alicia Vikander. She reigns supreme as Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark, married to the King but swayed by the attention of their doctor. As the monarchy struggles, so does the country; it is through Vikander’s poise and peril that we believe in both parts of that struggle.
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012)
How much do child actors really understand the characters they play? When you see a performance as brave and boisterous as that of Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, it hardly matters. As the waters rise around her bayou community, Hushpuppy is a much-needed fountain of innocence and joy. She dives into her own imagination to escape the danger around her; her sparkling spirit allows her ailing father respite too. Forget last year’s slightly naff Annie; for shining on through a hard knock life, this is the Wallis to watch.
Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha (2013)
When Woody Allen did his stuttering take on city life for the young in the late ’70s, everyone called him a genius. It’s about time people started applying the same superlatives to the absurdly talented Greta Gerwig. This is her star-making role as the irresponsible, irrepressible Frances, who is so sure of wanting to do something that she has no idea how to do it. Or what it is. The inherently sexist term ‘everyman’ is bandied about frequently for funny, lost men in art; the great triumph of Gerwig’s writing and acting here is that Frances is truly an everyperson. Watch out for Mistress America, her latest collaboration with Noah Baumbach, that thrilled Sundance and will charm you later this year…
Brie Larson, Short Term 12 (2013)
Never let it be said that there is nothing good on Netflix. In Short Term 12, Brie Larson gives enough tenderness to group home worker Grace to justify the whole streaming service. Great dramas require characters with whom the audience can connect; the link with Grace is so deep that you laugh when she does, cry when she does, and nearly get arrested when she smashes up a car with a baseball bat. The plot is composed of small moments, but so little needs to happen, as Larson can express everything that is going on in Grace’s head so exquisitely. See this ASAP.
Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue Is The Warmest Colour (2013)
There were so many potential obstacles to Blue Is The Warmest Colour being a success. A three-hour French romance about a young girl discovering who she is emotionally, socially and sexually is not a guaranteed hit in the current cinematic climate. That millions worldwide have seen this film is in no small part due to the resonance of Adèle Exarchopoulos in the lead role. The long sex scenes may have grabbed some headlines, but it is the faith we have in Exarchopoulos in every scene that is important. From high school to her mid-twenties, her journey is always engaging, often endearing and on more than one occasion, heart-breaking.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle (2014)
12 Years A Slave was not the only film in 2014 to expose the masses of history untouched by movies, especially regarding people of colour. Directed with assurance by Amma Asante, Belle is the story of the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a nobleman who acquires wealth but is denied status due to both her sex and her ethnicity. The cruelty of such treatment in the face of justice and love burns brightly through the film, but the strength and goodness shown by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the protagonist prevents it from being mere issuetainment. Her performance shows how compassion defeats prejudice; but it is also a validation of standing up for what you know to be right, no matter who says it is wrong.
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl (2014)
In conversations about under-representation of women in film, the same point crops up with terrible frequency, ‘Perhaps women just aren’t wired to playing as emotionally complex roles as men are?!’ If you only watched mainstream Hollywood movies, you might well believe that too. Rosamund Pike is SO mad, SO bad and SO frickin’ awesome in Gone Girl that I’m never going to have that conversation again; I’m just going to carry the film around on my phone and thrust it in the face of the non-believer. The film says as much, if not more about gender identity as Fight Club, that fanboy favourite; but where Edward Norton and Brad Pitt share the crazy, Rosamund Pike hoards it like a manic squirrel prepping for a sane winter. There is method in her madness AND madness in her methods, which on Gillian Flynn’s acerbic writing create one of the most watchable parts in years. The ‘cool girl’ speech sums it all up; how dare we have restricted women and forced them into boxes for so long, when we were missing out on characters as outrageous as this?!
So, go on then. Who have I left out?