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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Go Now (1995) – Shortly before he wowed the film world in Trainspotting, Carlyle played a character who couldn’t be more different than that film’s Frank Begbie in Michael Winterbottom’s Go Now. An easy-going plaster craftsman and semi-serious football player, Nick Cameron’s life changes irrevocably when he begins to show symptoms of the debilitating disease multiple sclerosis (MS). As his world slowly, but inevitably crumbles around him, he (and those who love him) all become victims. At its heart, Go Now is an examination of the effect of a devastating disease on relationships. As Nick’s condition worsens and he becomes at turns moody, sullen and angry. His rails at his friends for walking on eggshells around him, and his significant other for patronizing him. As serious as the material is, director Michael Winterbottom brilliantly counterbalances the seriousness of the subject with off-color humor, never letting it get overly melodramatic or maudlin. It’s a great cast, headed by Carlyle’s raw and very brave performance as Nick. It is both heartbreaking and explosive.
- Carla’s Song (1996) – Another Ken Loach film, this one takes on the Reagan-era war in Nicaragua. Carlyle plays George, a young, dissatisfied Glasgow bus driver who allows Carla, a penniless young Nicaraguan woman to ride the bus without paying her fare. Smitten, George pursues her only to find that she is an emotionally fragile victim of war. The horrors she has witnessed emerge as scars both inside and out. Hoping to better understand Carla, George accompanies her back to Nicaragua, but he is very clearly out of his depth there as he experiences the war first hand. Carlyle infuses George with a sweetness and tenderness, and the young Nicaraguan actress Oyanka Cabezas as the tortured Carla is also wonderful. The always-watchable Scott Glenn is great in the role of an ex-CIA agent now working for an NGO.
- The Full Monty (1997) – Listed 25th on the British Film Institute’s index of the 20th Century’s Top 100 British Films, The Full Monty is a funny and at the same time poignant little movie about a group of six unemployed steel factory workers in Sheffield, England. Inspired by a desperate need to meet child support payments to his ex-wife—or lose joint custody of his young son—Gaz (Carlyle) hatches an insane plot. After witnessing the effect of a women-only Chippendale’s night at the local workmen’s club, he convinces his best friend and other former co-workers to put on their own strip show. As funny as it is, The Full Monty is really a story about the human spirit as each of the men ironically gains a measure of dignity through carrying out Gaz’s potentially humiliating and embarrassing plan. Carlyle’s star-making turn is one of several memorable performances in this ensemble film. Tom Wilkinson, well before he became a star gives an equally affecting performance as the workers’ former foreman, a middle management guy, who is now, suddenly, only their equal: unemployed and chronically out of work.
- Looking After JoJo (1998) – This BBC miniseries takes a gritty and deeply disturbing look at the criminal culture of early ‘80s Edinburgh, Scotland. JoJo McCann (Carlyle) is a petty thief who works for his uncle, local publican and crime boss Charlie. Practically born to life a crime, stealing cigarettes and petty cash from local merchants, JoJo knows no other way of living. Trying to strike out on his own and break away from Charlie, he gets pulled into a newer and more dangerous business—dealing heroin. Looking After JoJo is a brutaly uncompromising examination of this world from the inside out. There is no cure; no redemption, only a quickly accelerating descent into hell. Carlyle’s performance is mesmerizing, frightening—even and heartbreaking. This is a very difficult BBC miniseries to watch, as horrifying as any horror film, made more so by its grip on a very grim reality.
- Plunkett and MacLeane (1999) – This 18th Century tale of gentlemen highwaymen is a wild and amusing ride. Carlyle plays an Plunkett, an apothecary who’s turned to a life of crime, if only to raise enough money to go to America. Enlisting penniless nobleman MacLeane (Trainspotting’s Johnny Lee Miller) as a partner in crime, Plunkett plans to plunder the rich. My complete review of this film is available elsewhere on Blogcritics.
- Mighty Celt (2005) – If the 1990s was the decade of Robert Carlye’s ne’er do wells and losers, his roles in the 2000s have tended to be less volatile and violent, but no less intense. In this film co-starring Gillian Anderson and young Northern Irish actor Tyrone McKenna, as well as Ken Stott, Carlyle plays a former IRA fugitive who’s returned to Belfast after several years on the run. O (yes, that’s his name) hopes to settle down now that the war is over. He longs for a more normal existence with his former lover Kate (Anderson), whom he pursues with a lovely genteel charm. Their story frames the movie’s main narrative concerning Kate’s son Donal and his racing greyhound The Mighty Celt. This is a wonderful family film with terrific performances and a lovely love story beneath the family drama.
- Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School (2005) – Carlyle plays a fourth generation Irish baker, now residing in Pasadena, California in this small-budget U.S. indie pic. A story of love and redemption—and the power of dancing as an emotional outlet, Marilyn Hotchkiss has a fantastic cast, including John Goodman, Mary Steenburgen, Donnie Wahlberg, and Marissa Tomei. Frank Keane (Carlyle) is a grieving widower, trapped in an abyss of loss and loneliness after his wife’s suicide, unable to move on with his life. A chance encounter with a dying man and a promise to fulfill carry out his final wish leads Frank to the Marilyn Hotchkiss School. Vowing to meet Steve’s childhood sweetheart Lisa, Frank searches desperately for her among the many women at the class—a place he clearly has no wish to be. Although Lisa is nowhere to be seen, the exercise is far from futile. Although the reticent Frank is lost within a deep emotional exile, he finds himself drawn to the class, and especially to one of the students, Meredith (Tomei). Marilyn Hotchkiss is a very stylized, but sweet and slightly surreal fairy tale, with a quiet, introspective performance from Carlyle.
- Summer (2008) – I recently wrote a full review of this little seen British indie, which, like Marilyn Hotchkiss deals with loss—but loss of a different sort. Summer revolves around two childhood friends—one wheelchair bound, the other his caretaker—many years after a summer of adolescent love—and tragedy. Carlyle plays Shaun, a middle aged man whose life was irrevocably altered by tragedy many years earlier.
- I Know You Know (2008) – Robert Carlyle plays Charlie, a man who by all appearances is on some sort of secret mission for someone. And whatever that is, once this last job is over, Charlie and his young son Jamie will be financially set for life. The payoff is £2 million, and after that Charlie and Jamie plan to leave the U.K. for a life in America. In the meantime, Charlie and Jamie have to share a squalid flat and drive around in Charlie’s beat up old car—all part of the cover, he explains to his son. Charlie’s uncle and aunt, with whom Jamie had been living, seem very unsure about whatever it is their nephew is up to. And they seem endlessly concerned about Jamie’s welfare. As Charlie grows increasingly paranoid about a local satellite television company, claiming that its mission is total mind control of the populace, even the young Jamie grows worried. The relationship between Jamie and Charlie is beautifully drawn and Carlyle’s twitchy, controlled performance is brilliant, especially as reality begins to dawn on both Jamie and the audience.
- Stargate Universe (2009-2011) – SGU is a dark, intelligent, and well-written science fiction series, cancelled by Syfy last year after only two seasons, much to the dismay of its many fans. Fortunately all 40 episodes are available on DVD (with commentaries for each episode). The series is considerably darker than the earlier entries in the Stargate franchise, with an emphasis on the personal conflicts among the stranded inhabitants of the spaceship Destiny. Robert Carlyle plays Dr. Nicholas Rush, the brilliant but difficult lead scientist on the Icarus Project. When the project base comes under attack, military and science personnel evacuate through a worm hole (stargate) into an ancient space ship. While most of the survivors want to find a way to get home as quickly as possible, Rush’s agenda is quite different. Carlye’s lead performance presents Rush as a tormented and complex man, who can be cold and calculating, but who also possesses a deeply human streak.
So there you have it; my 12 favorite Robert Carlyle roles. You may wonder why I haven’t included Once Upon a Time on the list. The answer is simple; I believe that this is still a work in progress. I adore Carlyle in this dual role; he’s become my favorite character. But he just hasn’t yet had enough screen time to make the list. Be sure to tune in tomorrow night for Once Upon a Time’s fall finale “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” When the series returns January 8, 2012, we will be treated to Rumpelstiltskin’s backstory with “Desperate Souls.”
Reminders: Jennifer Morrison will be live tweeting at tomorrow night December 11 at @jenmorrisonlive, during the both the East and West Coast broadcasts Jennifer will answer questions and also offer commentary about the episode and the series. And later this week, I be publishing my recent interview with writer/producer Jane Espenson who wrote the upcoming “Desperate Souls” episode. So stay tuned!