This is something I have learnt through the years, watching hundreds and hundreds of movies. It is difficult to define what makes the difference, it is probably a combination of qualities, their theatrical training and also the evidence that they could express the complete range of human feelings without much trouble. Less flamboyant than the American actors, but richer in subtlety, sharpness, and intensity, British actors are a category of their own. This is why I was immensely sad this morning, when I read we have lost one of them.
When I think about Pete Postlethwaite, I think about one of my fondest cinema memories.
I was 19 years old and already a cinema freak, craving for special, vibrant, outstanding movies, when I saw one of these precious and rare pictures in a Milan cinema: Distant Voices, Still Lives by British film-maker Terence Davies (who is, by the way, an absolute genius). Incredibly enough, the movie was in Original Language (I still remember people quitting the line when they heard the news!!!), and once the movie started I understood why: there were just few dialogues, many silent moments and a lot, a lot of songs. It was a movie with an incredible personality, an incredible light, an incredible cast. Based upon the film-maker’s family history, it was set in Liverpool and it was unbelievably sad and gloomy. I was crazy about it. Postethwaite played the Father, and not a very nice one (quite the opposite: abusive of his wife and children, a terrifying human being) but his particular face and his way of acting marked me for ever.
Few years later, I saw him playing another father, but a completely different one: he was Giuseppe Conlon, the good, sympathetic, humble dad of Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day Lewis) in In the name of the Father by Jim Sheridan, the movie based upon the real history of the Guildford Four, innocent Irish people accused of having put a bomb in a Guildford pub during the 70s. If somebody needed the confirmation of his talent, that movie was there to prove it. To watch him playing with Daniel Day Lewis was just amazing. The pain you feel looking at them suffering, struggling towards the entire movie, was almost unbearable. This was also the movie that turned him into a famous actor. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Role and his career in the US was launched: he played Mr. Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects by Bryan Singer, he had an important role in Romeo + Juliet by Baz Luhrman and then Steven Spielberg (who once defined him as "the best actor in the world") called him to work in two of his movies: Jurassic Park and Amistad. Postlethwaite never stopped working in the UK, though, and he was in some very good pictures, like Brassed Off by Mark Herman and Among Giants by Sam Miller, and he also never stopped going on stage (he starred as King Lear in a 2008 production of Liverpool Everyman Theatre).
Recently, I was happy to find him in a great BBC TV series: Criminal Justice, in the role of Ben Whishaw’s fellow prisoner. I think movies set in jail suited him very well: in a very small place, his talent simply exploded, obliging the actors in front of him to give the best of them, and especially the young ones. He also had a small role in Inception by Christopher Nolan, as the dying father of Robert Fischer (the character played by Cillian Murphy), but his most impressive recent performance was in The Town, by Ben Affleck.
I was puzzled by his appearance: he was so skinny, almost skeletal, and he didn’t need to be that for the role. I immediately understood he was ill: his face was even more expressive, with his eyes looking even more sharply. You could see he was fighting against something very harsh. As the bad guy Fergus Colm, who runs his illegal/criminal business in a nice flower shop, Postlethwaite was just... perfect. He made think of a monk, an ascetic, who has finally reached the core of his existence, giving up on useless and frivolous things.
In a 2009 Q&A piece by The Guardian, to the question: What makes you feel depressed?, the actor replied: That life will come to an end.
I wonder if he knew how depressed he made us all today.