There’s a scene in “Men,” the new Alex Garland fantasy/horror film opening May 20, when Jessie Buckley’s protagonist is taking a walk in the English countryside.
Hearing distant thunder, she pauses and breaks into a soft grin. What could be more mundane than such a sound or simpler than such a response? Yet Buckley turns the moment into a kind of exaltation. It helps that she has one of the screen’s great snaggly grins, slightly lopsided to her right. That grin may be Buckley’s most distinctive physical feature. But that’s only a small part of what’s special about this moment — and why there are many others like it in her filmography. These few seconds aren’t showy. They’re not exaggerated. The wonder of it is that there’s no wonder to them at all, yet they feel wondrous. That’s what Buckley can do: render inwardness visible, turn reaction into transformation.
At 32, she still looks like an ingénue. A dimpled chin can have that effect. It’s more than just that, though. It’s the questing, unfinished quality Buckley has. Yet even in her first starring role, “Beast” (2017), playing a young woman who discovers her lover is not as he seems — nor, for that matter, is she — it was plain that Buckley possesses an old soul. Those naturally narrow eyes of hers take nothing for granted.
In this simultaneous youthfulness and gravity, you see how Buckley can display such unusual versatility. Her business card should read, “Have range, will travel.” A Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts graduate, she’s played Shakespeare: Miranda, Perdita, Juliet. The “Romeo & Juliet,” a fleet, stripped-down National Theatre production released on video last year, is very much worth seeking out. A radiant Buckley is heartbreaking. She’s also played a Scottish country and western singer (“Wild Rose,” 2018 — yes, she has a raise-the-roof singing voice) and a grief-stricken Ukrainian wife (“Chernobyl,” 2019). Give her a few years, and she should be an amazing Mother Courage. Already she could be a fabulous Reno Sweeney.
If you’re aware of Buckley, the awareness is likely fairly recent. Maybe it came via the fourth season of “Fargo” (2020), where she plays sweetly psychopathic nurse Oraetta Mayflower (do character names come any better?). The clumping flatness of Oraetta’s vowels shows just how good Buckley is at accents.
Or it was her getting a best supporting actress Oscar nomination this year for “The Lost Daughter.” The film’s star, Olivia Colman, earned a best actress nomination. Yet as fine an actress as Colman is, it’s Buckley, playing a younger version of Colman’s character, who owns the picture.
Most recent of all there was the attention Buckley got with her cheerfully gender-bending outfit at the Met Gala this month. That’s one red carpet it’s hard to stand out on. Buckley stood out. She wore a black broad-brimmed hat, Schiaparelli pinstriped suit, and peroxided hair (Buckley’s natural color, as befits a daughter of County Kerry, is flaming red — a physical feature maybe even more distinctive than that grin). The final touch was a pencil-thin greasepaint mustache. Acting, at its heart, is playing at dress up. Fashion, at its best, can be as much about wit as style. Buckley had all three covered.
“Always good to shake it up and do something different,” she told the BBC in 2017. Consider as proof of that the 2020 Buckley had, “Fargo” and four very disparate movies.
In “Misbehaviour,” Buckley plays a raucous feminist radical in London in 1970. The color and tangle of her (natural) hair are as eruptive as her politics and manner generally. In “The Courier,” Buckley’s character could hardly be more different. It’s the early ‘60s, again in London, and she plays the almost self-abnegatingly supportive wife of Benedict Cumberbatch’s imprisoned spy. Both of those women are real-life characters. So’s Queen Victoria. Buckley play her in “Dolittle.” That’s the Robert Downey Jr. version of the Doctor Dolittle books. Although Buckley spends most of the movie either offscreen or in a coma, she can still deliver a line like “Lady Rose, is there a giraffe in my bedchamber?” with a straight face.
The fourth 2020 movie deserves its own paragraph. Buckley’s unnamed character in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is going with her new boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents for the first time. That’s an unnerving enough situation for anyone, but as things develop that’s the least of it. Buckley is called upon to be alternately hopeful, despairing, curious, bewildered, affectionate, troubled, dismayed. Subdued throughout, she’s never less than her own person (which in the larger context of the very tricky plot is no mean feat). Precisely because the performance is so quiet and restrained it’s an absolute tour de force.
There’s nothing hey-look-at-me about the acting — there never is with Buckley — which makes that performance seem on a different planet from the Oscar-winning one Renée Zellweger gives in “Judy” (2019). Buckley’s second-billed in the movie. She plays Judy Garland’s minder. It’s a thankless task for character and actress both. The thanklessness of having to look after Garland at the end of her career is barely imaginable. The thanklessness of having to share the screen with Zellweger as she huffs and she puffs and she brings the house down is barely watchable. Buckley’s character’s name is Rosalyn Wilder. It should be Smiles Gamely.
Oddly enough, the name of the character Buckley plays in “Wild Rose,” that Scottish C&W movie, is Rose-Lynn. The movie’s not all that good. In its low-budget, feel-good, F-bomb-dropping way, it’s as phony as “Judy” is. But it provides Buckley a suitable vehicle to let it rip. The same woman who’s so sedate in “The Courier,” and regally comatose in “Dolittle,” gets to stomp around in white cowboy boots and laugh her ratchety laugh and announce “I got my talent and I’m going to use it.” Yes, she does; and yes, she does.
“Completely fearless,” another character says of Rose-Lynn, with both admiration and a touch of alarm. She could be describing Buckley. Fearlessness is very rare among performers. Really, how many completely fearless actresses are there? Not many, though probably more than there are completely fearless actors. The ones that come to mind are a generation or more older than Buckley: Isabelle Huppert, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judy Davis, Fiona Shaw. All are phenomenal actresses, none of them “stars” as Hollywood, or Broadway or even the West End, understands the term. So be it; that’s stardom’s loss.
Fearlessness, in this context, means some compound of daring, modesty (nothing is more fearless for a performer than disappearing into a role), intensity, restlessness, and assurance. Without assurance, fearlessness is just well-intentioned folly. These are all qualities Buckley possesses, and to a rare degree. “Oh, tell not me of fear,” Juliet says. When she was rehearsing that line for the National Theatre production, did Buckley ever think to look into a mirror?
STREAMING JESSIE BUCKLEY
“Beast” is available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Kanopy, Vudu, YouTube.
“Chernobyl” is available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, HBO Max, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube.
“The Courier” is available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube.
“Dolittle” is available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube.
“Fargo” is available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is available on Netflix.
“Judy” is available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu.
“The Lost Daughter” is available on Netflix.
“Misbehaviour” is available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube.
“Romeo & Juliet” is available on Amazon Prime.
“Wild Rose” is available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Hulu, Kanopy, Vudu, YouTube
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.