There has never been any doubt that Robert Carlyle is a gifted actor, arguably one of the best actors of his generation. He's gone from film to television and back again both here and in the U.K. He's done tiny budget independent films that allow him to create characters and give voice to films with great social or political weight and bigger projects that undoubtedly allow him to support small-budget worthwhile cinema. But there is also no doubt that whatever role he chooses to do, he has an ability to transform himself completely, making the character unforgettable.
Carlyle's role on Once Upon a Time is a difficult one. His Storybrooke and Fairytale Land personas are in many ways reflections of each other, but each is so distinct in manner, voice and appearance, it takes a true sorcerer of an actor to make us comprehend that they are indeed one character. All of the main cast of Once play dual roles, but Rumple's personas are so distinct from the other, coming from such distant times in his long life, that his is not like any other character on the series.
And that each persona: from terrified peasant to trickster to cuckolded husband to cool businessman to the courtly enchanted prince we seem to get glimpses of from time to time all inform and loop back on each other, often simultaneously. It's just brilliant.
Rumple is child-like as much as he is demonic. He is graceful and flamboyant; he uses his voice to terrify: an enraged shriek or a chilling calm. But it can also take on an affected elegance that is cover for the impoverished, frightened, lonely, and powerless peasant he left behind when was cursed by killing the Dark One.
Mr. Gold's icy calm is equally unnerving as it can turn to dark rage in an instant when he feels betrayed or threatened. Gold remembers what it was like; cursed not only as the Dark One, he is cursed with a memory that despite the distance of centuries, is still too raw and too painful.
In tonight's Once Upon a Time episode "The Crocodile" we begin to understand why Rumple clings to power; he knows what it is to have none. He knows what it means to be so powerless that he must suffer the humiliation of watching his wife become whore to a pirate.
It is a testament to the power of Carlyle's considerable acting ability that despite the terrible things Rumplestiltskin does in "Crocodile" he can still break our hearts. Carlyle's range of emotional beats in this week's episode is astonishing. He took us deep within Rumple's heart: to the source of the loss, pain, loneliness and anger that coexist within him. But he also showed us as Rumple shows Belle, the love and yearning that also dwells within his ravaged soul. Wrapped around the anguish, however is Rumple's armor of steel: blind rage, quick temper, even cruelty, and Carlyle's performance made us fear him as much as we fear for him. It was simply brilliant.