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Once Upon a Time‘s Robert Carlyle: A Highly Subjective Filmography

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Although he’s starred in U.S. television series the couple of years, Robert Carlyle is perhaps most famous as the star of numerous independent British films, some of which became mainstream hits, including Trainspotting and The Full Monty. His latest film, California Solo premieres as an official selection at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival next month.

A true chameleon, Carlyle’s performances are carefully crafted works of art. His commitment to his roles is legendary, which results in an authenticity and naturalism to each part he plays whether it’s a commercial blockbuster like The World is not Enough or a barely-seen, low budget art-house picture like I Know You Know. Charismatic and intense on screen, Carlyle has created a beautifully varied opus of frightening psychotics, nuanced rogues and ne’er do wells, and a host of other troubled souls, and even a romantic hero or two.

There are common threads running through many of Carlyle’s movies. He’s played a variety of displaced and dispossessed men, marginalized by society—sometimes driven to crime, sometimes to drink or drugs. But these working-class anti-heroes are also usually (but certainly not always) at their core sympathetic. (Okay, you have me there at Trainspotting’s Frank Begbie, who has no redeemable qualities coming to mind—and Hitler in the U.S. TV film Hitler: The Origins of Evil—a performance I have not been able to make myself watch).

Caryle plays a great villain. He’s not a big guy, but possesses the sort of coiled energy that suggests he might snap at any moment. On the other hand, he also makes great romantic lead, at once charming and complex, with layers and layers beneath the surface, revealed through his large soulful eyes.

Of course these days, Carlyle stars in the new ABC hit series Once Upon a Time as Rumpelstiltskin and his Storybrooke counterpart Mr. Gold. Even in the limited number of scenes we’ve thus far seen, Carlyle conveys that there’s much more to the character than meets the eye. There is something indefinite there that draws you in. Maybe it’s the eyes; perhaps it’s the theatrical grace with which he imbues Rumple and the soft-spoken menace of Mr. Gold. Whatever it is, he’s certainly gotten to me, setting me on a journey to seek out his earlier work, some of which is awfully difficult to find on these North American shores.

This little guide to the films of Robert Carlyle is hardly comprehensive. I struggled with which of his film and television roles to include, but decided to focus on those that have gotten to me on an emotional level, which is why I’ve suggested these as “favorites” rather than “the best of…”  

I have to admit that ultra-violent movies are not usually my cup of tea, no matter their artistic merit. I find it exceptionally hard to watch a favorite actor turn into a monster on screen, no matter how compelling that performance might be, or no matter how important a film. So, you’ll probably notice immediately that I’ve not included Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s dark, disturbing, but witty and ironic film about friendship and Edinburgh’s drug culture. As good as it is (listed as 10 on the British Film Institute’s index of the Top 100 British Films of the 20th Century), Trainspotting is not on my list of favorite Robert Carlyle roles. Carlyle makes the psychotic Begbie terrifying and unpredictable, and for many, it’s one of his most memorable roles—just not on my decidedly subjective list of favorites.

IMDb, of course lists Carlyle’s complete filmography, and I would recommend that create your own list of favorites. So, here’s mine:

  1. Riff Raff (1991) – The legendary Ken Loach directed this somewhat comic slice of socio-political commentary on Thatcherite Britain. The story revolves around a crew of day laborers—non-unionized construction workers—working in unsafe, difficult conditions to rehab an old hospital into a trendy condominium building. Their work (and home) lives are as precarious as the shoddy scaffolding barely protecting them on the building site. Robert Carlyle plays one of the workers, homeless ex-con Steve (Carlyle). Wanting nothing more than to do his job, and earn enough to get him out of his “temporary situation” (he wants to market boxer shorts and colorful socks), Steve keeps to himself and tries to stay out of trouble. One day he finds a lost ladies’ handbag and returns it to its owner, a sweet, needy singer with a marginal voice. Love ensues, and the romance between Steve and Susan (Emer McCourt) frames the documentary-like story of workers’ lives.
  2. Hamish Macbeth (BBC, 1995-98) – Quirky and well written, this comedy-drama series is set in the Scottish Highlands in a very small town of Lochdubh (pronounced Loch-doo). Carlyle plays Hamish Macbeth, the town’s not very ambitious constable. With a strong distaste for the urban Glasgow life he’s left behind, Hamish much prefers this tiny town and its quirky cast of characters. Trying to keep a low profile by not being too clever a cop, Hamish does his best to avoid arresting anyone or acquire too stellar a record, lest his superiors in Inverness transfer him back to the rougher city. If I were to compare Hamish Macbeth to anything on American television I’d have to say it’s got flavors of both Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure. The townsfolk are peculiar and individualistic, and the beautiful physical setting often emerges as a character unto itself like both of those series. But the series absolutely has its own very distinctive feel. Although each episode has its own series of crises, there is an overall narrative to the series running throughout its three seasons. Hamish’s love life also propels the series, especially in the second season. Many of the episodes are comic, but there are moments of real poignancy, tragedy and sweetness throughout.

About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Sabella

    Lovely to see some of Mr. Carlyle’s less-well-known films being reviewed! I have adored him for years, and spent considerable time and effort finding some of his earlier work, including things like ‘Riff Raff’ and ‘JoJo’. Thanks for the walk down memory lane!

  • Tourmaline

    I’d like to add to the list the role I first encountered Robert Carlyle in: his appearance as Albie Kinsella in the Cracker three-parter ‘To Be A Somebody’. He plays excellently against Robbie Coltrane in a very intense performance.

  • Barbara Barnett

    Thanks Sabella. It was a real effort to find Looking After JoJo, but it was well worth it. Just watching it emotionally drained me. By the end, I both hated him and felt so deeply for him at the same time. It’s a real testament to RC’s acting power to convey both JoJo’s soul and the hardened, horrible shell of a man he’d become by the series climax.

    Touramline–I’ve not seen Cracker. It’s one I’ll have to get my hands on.

  • Tourmaline

    I’m sure you’ll enjoy Cracker, Barbara, to me it’s Robbie Coltrane’s best role. The early episodes (including this story) also featured Christopher Eccleston, his breakthrough role on British TV.

  • Annette Code

    I love Robert Carlyle’s acting from such films as Trainspotting to when he played a copper on a Scots television series, Hamish. I just saw him in a little bit of Once Upon a Time, but it seems a ‘creepy’ to me. The Cracker series are on again on TV here in B.C. Canada on Knowledge Network.

  • barbara barnett

    Hi Annette. Give Once another try, his character is pretty phenomenal, especially as the season goes on.

    I did finally see Cracker, and it was excellent. I really loved it, and RC was amazing in it. Ive also seen Trainspotting, which I also loved. Found Begbie extremely well done, but very off-putting (which I suppose is natural).