A somber departure – Tom Wilkinson was quietly and consistently exceptional

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A somber departure – Tom Wilkinson was quietly and consistently exceptional
"Any cast list featuring him should have made you sit up and pay that extra bit more attention, because you knew he would add a touch of class, wit, style, pathos, and often a very English decency to that film." 2002 saw Tom Wilkinson. Image: Shutterstock/Bei/REX/Matt Baron
Tom Wilkinson was quietly and consistently wonderful, therefore it is a tragic loss.

The 75-year-old actor, who starred in everything from Michael Clayton to Eternal Sunshine, The Full Monty, and In the Bedroom, was a wise and modest joy.

Bradshaw, Peter @PeterBradshaw1
Sat., Dec. 30, 2023, 19:51 GMT 158
For a certain generation of British moviegoers, there is one image of Tom Wilkinson that will forever encapsulate his appeal: a scrawny, decent man in a welfare line, his tie and collar covered by an anorak, surrounded by a group of equally scruffy, younger, depressed men who are subtly, almost unconsciously, practicing sensual dance moves to Donna Summer's Hot Stuff.

Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, and Judi Dench in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"
Wilkinson, Tom: The complete Tommy
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In the 1997 British comedy The Full Monty, he portrayed the stiff, upright Gerald, an ex-supervisor at a steel mill in Sheffield who was laid off similarly to the blue-collar workers under him but who, in contrast to them, first tried to hide his humiliating unemployment from his wife. Gerald, however, swallows his ego and joins the odd male striptease group of guys whose symbolically reduced manhood is revealed at the end of an incredibly unattractive dance routine. These guys' manhood was once closely linked to their role as breadwinners. Wilkinson had a very sensitive, humorous, kind, and endearing performance as the authority figure, the teacher, employer, or father who had to step down off his high horse and acknowledge that he was just as lonely, miserable, and in need of assistance as everyone else. Wilkinson played the job with an ease that came from displaying the tenderness hidden beneath the grumpiness.

Shakespeare in Love, Wilkinson.
Shakespeare in Love, Wilkinson. Image: Shutterstock/REX/Moviestore
Before The Full Monty, Wilkinson had actually been a highly regarded actor in British movies. He portrayed the retiring Mr. Dashwood in Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility in 1995, as well as the irritable attorney Frank Braithwaite in David Hare's underappreciated 1984 masterpiece Wetherby in a previous role. The actor, The Full Monty, was a true star in everything he did. He was so versatile, self-assured, intelligent, and discreet, and he had such a convincing American accent that he attracted the attention of casting directors on both sides of the Atlantic, making him the Rolls-Royce of British screen character actors. He had the ability to add irony, comedy, or tragedy to a role that, in the hands of another actor, may have been an identical middle-aged man.

He played the absurd and stage-struck moneylender Fennyman in John Madden's 1998 Shakespeare in Love, emulating The Full Monty in a more cartoonish comic role. He is persuaded to forgive debts in exchange for a small role in Shakespeare's upcoming play, Romeo and Juliet. He played the white-coated Dr. Mierzwiak, the head of a company that specialises in removing emotionally taxing memories from people's minds, in the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michael Gondry and written by Charlie Kaufman. Wilkinson casually said the line that is most frequently quoted from the movie, which comes after Jim Carrey's beleaguered character Joel has nervously inquired as to whether the operation could cause brain damage. "In a technical sense, this procedure is brain damage," quips Wilkinson in a nonchalant manner. And in a dark fashion that might today be considered to foreshadow the world of abuse and #MeToo, Dr. Mierzwiak has wiped the memory of their sex off of Kirsten Dunst's unhappy character Mary.

Perhaps his most memorable performances were in very serious little parts (of which he had many), giving weight and seriousness to prosaic ordinarycy and stolid familiarity. Wilkinson played the high-flying lawyer Arthur Edens in Tony Gilroy's 2007 business thriller Michael Clayton, which starred George Clooney as the enigmatic, brooding fixer of the title. However, Wilkinson's character experienced a serious psychotic episode in the film. Maybe Wilkinson was the only one with the necessary gravity and classically educated grandiloquence to pull off this role, especially the opening speech in which he rambled madly at Clayton about what is essentially the movie's id, its tormented soul, and its sense of something evil within corporate culture.

In Michael Clayton, Wilkinson.
In Michael Clayton, Wilkinson. Picture courtesy of Warner Bros./Allstar/Myles Aronowitz

In Peter Webber's 2003 production of Girl with a Pearl Earring, Wilkinson also portrayed the obnoxious and predatory Pieter Van Ruijven, the wealthy patron of artist Vermeer. This man believes he is entitled to everything, including the attractive young woman in Vermeer's employ, Griet, who is portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. Griet makes menacing advances while she is dutifully doing the laundry. An amazing moment for both of them.

Wilkinson, Tom
Tom Wilkinson: the big boys are out.
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Though there are plenty to pick from, Todd Field's 2001 film In the Bedroom, in which he played the paterfamilias under excruciating stress, is likely Wilkinson's finest. He is a well-to-do and reputable doctor in New England, married to a superbly talented woman (Sissy Spacek) who matches his own brilliance exactly. Nick Stahl, who plays their adult son and is destined for an Ivy League education, plays an older married woman who lives nearby and gets into a terrible situation. Wilkinson's father figure, who is very protective and caring, has to take charge of the situation and starts to break under the pressure of breaking the law and having his own hidden affairs.

The story is distinctly American, but it also has a strong European influence due to its focus on the internal dynamics of family psychology. One could almost see Bergman being intrigued by the idea. The film's intense emotional impact is largely attributed to Wilkinson, who is almost palpably vibrating like a pressure cooker on the verge of blowing.

Wilkinson has been the epitome of acting technique on screen for a long time, and his understated shyness makes him even more valued. For as long as I've been writing about movies, just seeing his name on any cast list has caused you to sit up and take notice a little bit more because you knew he would add a touch of class, wit, flair, pathos, and frequently a very English decency to that picture. His brilliance and intricacy were unparalleled.