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An Exploration of The Splendid Allure of Emily Blunt

Time and time again, the versatile leading lady epitomizes an impressively malleable, unforgettable screen presence.
Emily Blunt A Quiet Place
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on June 15th, 2021

The Five-Year Engagement (2012)

As far as Blunt’s mainstream rom-coms are concerned, The Five-Year Engagement gives her the most room to develop a well-rounded protagonist, despite the film’s more prickly elements. One of her others efforts within the genre, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, is earnest, quixotic, and assuredly palatable, given its safe and sugary impressions of romance. Meanwhile, Wild Mountain Thyme ends up inconceivable and illogical no matter Blunt’s efforts to ground her leading lady.

Analogously, Nicholas Stoller’s rougher, more vulgar flick points us toward a laidback, adorable Blunt without as much interminable fluff. She co-leads The Five-Year Engagement alongside Jason Segel. They fall into step as Violet and Tom, an astonishingly normal couple whose picturesque love story becomes increasingly warped the longer they remain engaged. Their ambitions and career trajectories repeatedly take each one on separate journeys, which spells danger for their relationship’s stability.

This doesn’t stop Blunt from being happily at ease in the shoes of the impressively spirited Violet. She gets to show off her natural astuteness as this studious post-doctorate candidate, whose smarts are often balanced out by a fantastic sense of humor. Violet eschews self-importance for a healthy amount of doubt and insecurity as well. Yet, she also honestly values her achievements, rooting her disputes with Tom in plausible and sensible empathy. Blunt wins us over each time triteness rears its head in The Five-Year Engagement, keeping the often bizarre film credible and real.

Looper (2012)

Blunt has brought a range of love interests to life throughout her filmography. Problems arise when some of her more male-centric work, such as The Adjustment Bureau, solely designate her to one-note romance arcs, wherein legitimately enjoyable performances and dynamics aren’t extended to their fullest potential — watered down significantly supposedly in favor of plot and exposition.

That said, Looper demonstrates that Blunt doesn’t have to sacrifice her measure of significant narrative weight to participate in such action-driven pieces. Without a doubt, the Rian Johnson sci-fi action-thriller tells a broad story about present-day assassins chasing targets from the future at the behest of certain oligarch employers. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis sharing the lead role of Joe in this game of cat-and-mouse between two versions of the same self, where does Blunt’s rural farming mother Sara reasonably fit in?

The answer is that Blunt crucially holds the keys to the subtleties of Looper’s emotional core. She portrays a hardened single parent without much time for simple comforts or illusions about the dangers of the world. Still, as much as Sara puts up a brave front to protect both herself and her strange, solemn little boy, the fierceness that Blunt imbues her with only narrowly masks a sense of loneliness and anguish that beautifully ties up the film’s underlying premise of family and identity.

This is all the more impressive considering that Blunt has minimal screen time in Looper, first popping up halfway through the movie. Her nuance is a sorely welcomed addition that concretely raises the stakes for the lore-heavy flick, and we can’t help but love and root for her.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Blunt is already a considerable badass in Looper, but she ups the ante further in Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow. Based on the Japanese light novel “All You Need is Kill,” the film is ostensibly a run-of-the-mill action-packed Tom Cruise headliner. And it is, for sure, stunt-heavy! In reality, it is also a superb showcase and celebration of Blunt as an all-out action hero.

When an army of aliens called Mimics begins a violent conquest of Earth, Major William Cage (Cruise) — a woefully unprepared military public relations officer — gets tossed into the fray of battle. An inadvertent brush with the enemy permits Cage the ability to relive the same day over and over again, and soon, it is up to him to strategize the extraterrestrials’ defeat. In Cage’s corner is Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Blunt), a dedicated soldier lauded as the messianic “Angel of Verdun,” a legend on the battlefield.

This partnership is heaven-sent. If a mega action star like Cruise has to bumble around pretending like he doesn’t know how to take the safety off a gun, only someone as compelling as Blunt could be his authentically imposing counterpart. The screenplay paints Rita in broader strokes than her other characters, but her assertiveness and sheer dignity establish her as exceptionally inspiring and formidable. From Blunt’s incredible physical prowess to her scowling unamused demeanor, she dominates.

Into the Woods (2014)

Music is pretty integral in Blunt’s work. A number of her projects have featured her soothing singing voice in the past, but Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods definitively inducts her into the world of musical movies. Admittedly, not everything about this Disney-fied adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s eponymous stage production works. Blunt is the standout, though — a captivating diamond in the simplistic rough.

Into the Woods converges several Grimms’ fairytales into a single narrative universe examining the dark side of action and consequence. A childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Blunt) must make a deal with their witchy next-door neighbor (Meryl Streep) to lift a curse placed on their household years prior. The couple is then tasked to collect a series of iconic objects by hook or crook.

Blunt’s casting as the Baker’s Wife is truly inspired. By now, she has peppered her resumé with enough shrewd, curious women that she could portray the trope in her sleep. Blunt doesn’t trip over Into the Woods’ added vocal and choreographic factors either, keeping in buoyant step with her musically-inclined co-stars and the heartfelt material. Vitally, the inherent sentimentality of the Baker’s Wife never strays into saccharine territory because of Blunt’s earthy grit, bringing gratifying hints of realism to this ultra-heightened narrative.

Sicario (2015)

Should we forget that Blunt isn’t a basic blockbuster star and can absolutely nail an unflinching, gutsy lead role, Denis Villeneuve’s meditative Sicario exists to attest otherwise. The Taylor Sheridan-penned action-thriller treads familiar ground in its narrative treatment of police corruption and the US War on Drugs. Luckily, the film’s filmmaking fortes — including Blunt’s performance — elevates it beyond forgettable fare.

Sicario tracks inexperienced FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt), whose idealistic approach to crime-fighting begins to falter after being recruited into an off-the-books anti-drug task force. Particularly, upon meeting its morally indecipherable advisor named Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), Kate discovers that the muddied waters of her chosen profession may never run clear.

This isn’t the first time Blunt and del Toro have shared the screen. The 2010 horror-tinged fantasy movie The Wolfman gives us an initial taste of their potent chemistry. Outright hypnotism transpires between Blunt and del Toro whenever they merely look at each other, and their bond feels inexplicably profound.

That fervent intensity could be read in a treacherously romantic way as in The Wolfman. However, Sicario draws out a more elaborate, confusing dynamic. Where Blunt’s analytical, altruistic protagonist could surely indict her peers and superiors in a more straightforward film, her unspoken connection to Alejandro wreaks havoc on the former’s conscience. Thus, Blunt’s typical soulfulness and perceptiveness take an unexpected hit, although not so much in an undermining way. Rather, she represents the ideal conduit for viewers to experience Sicario‘s overwhelming atmosphere.

The Girl on the Train (2016)

The mid-to-late 2010s generally provided a valuable “grit” marker in Blunt’s filmography — on the whole, her characters were turning inward and going darker. The actress first dips her toes into such waters with her drug-addled deuteragonist in the 2012 film Arthur Newman. In that project, she plays a frail and jaded woman whose ill-advised coping mechanisms comprising sex, larceny, and the darkest of dark humor emphasize the tragedy of her trauma.

The Girl on the Train compounds that character archetype further. Notably, the release of Tate Taylor’s film in the post-Gone Girl era — that of women reclaiming stories about unreliable narrators — meant that Blunt could sink her teeth into her most tumultuous role yet. She plays Rachel, a recovering alcoholic. Bitterly divorced, she spends most of her days commuting on a train that takes her past the houses on her old street, where she obsessively observes and imagines the ostensibly unblemished lives of the families now living there.

Of course, the mere materialization of messy and tenacious characters isn’t any indication of an engrossing story. Nevertheless, Blunt gives her all in her depiction of the mesmerizing, volatile Rachel. The actress makes this painful odyssey of resolute soul-searching intuitive, in the sense that she easily distills Rachel’s unresolved hurt and contemptible behavior into unabashed emotional expression. Blunt’s efforts pay off by keeping us truly invested in Rachel’s well-being, serving as an appropriate axis for The Girl on the Train’s overall surface-level storytelling.

A Quiet Place (2018)

Not for lack of trying, Blunt’s earliest ventures in the horror genre — namely the supernatural movie Wind Chill and the bare-bones short film Curiosity — fail to elicit the desired response of genuine fright. Primarily, these projects fall short due to a noticeable dissonance between the actress’s sincere intentions and the glaringly involuntary comical aspects of the material.

Thankfully, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place is a worthy vehicle for Blunt in every sense of the word. In this exceptionally paced nail-biter, the duo — who are real-life spouses — plays Lee and Evelyn Abbott, a couple trying to survive the fallout of the apocalypse brought about by monstrous blind creatures who hunt by hearing. The pair have no choice but to raise their children and build a sustainable home in near-complete silence.

Blunt enters ultimate mom mode in A Quiet Place, radiating benevolence, sagacity, and strength that feels profoundly lived-in. Acting opposite her actual husband reaps the benefits of tapping into their authentic affinity. Additionally, Blunt — armed with both a shotgun and one of the most bone-chillingly effective shrieks in the business — will fight tooth and nail for her family’s preservation at all costs — something that is also replicated in its equally exhilarating sequel. Blunt takes us through a full-body experience in this horror saga. We’re left breathless but extremely happy about it.

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

In the same way that horror hasn’t always worked out in Blunt’s favor, her mainstream adventure slate isn’t totally consistent either. The family-friendly fantasy-adventure Gulliver’s Travels, as well as the visually appealing Snow White and the Huntsman prequel-sequel — The Huntsman: Winter’s War — greatly benefit from her presence. Blunt is arguably the best part about the latter movie, finally getting to play a literal ice queen after more successful attempts at embodying the metaphorical version of one.

That said, Blunt nabs a win in Mary Poppins Returns. Rob Marshall’s vibrant, nostalgic romp is a sparkling triumph in its own right. The film catches up with the Banks children from the first movie — who are now all grown up and adrift amid arduous adult responsibilities. Sensing that they are losing their zest for life, the mystical childhood nanny Mary Poppins drops back into their lives to save the day.

Taking over the iconic eponymous role from Julie Andrews is a feat in and of itself. The original Mary Poppins earned Andrews the Oscar for Best Actress, cementing her as the quintessential magical flying governess in our collective imaginations. Nonetheless, Blunt assumes the role of Mary with exceptional gusto, electing to carry Andrews’s essence while making the stern-but-sweet character her own.

Blunt’s update of “practically perfect in every way” completes itself with a sharp, clipped vocal delivery teeming with warmth and love. Her singing prowess and penchant for physicality jump out at us once again, fully manifesting the final form of her triple-threat status. Beyond these distinguishably entertaining aspects of Blunt’s performance is her finely-spun depiction of the surprising melancholic undertones found between the lines of Mary Poppins Returns — a refrain that implores us to treasure the time we have with life’s mysteries. Blunt so enjoyably and poignantly relays this message without having to utter a word.

As with most actors who’ve worked for as long as Blunt has, there are sections of her filmography that are truly nominal at best. Her animated fare — namely the uncanny Gnomeo & Juliet duology, Netflix’s superfluous Animal Crackers, and messily-plotted My Little Pony: The Movie — is guiltiest of this, seeing as they often underwrite her roles. Even when Blunt contributes to a generally well-crafted film like Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, she’s barely there. Moreover, there is definitely room to expand on her prestige TV oeuvre. But she’s likely on her way with her upcoming main role in the BBC’s The English (at the time of writing, anyway).

In the end, Blunt’s repute as one of Hollywood’s most transformative performers is indisputable. Through a combination of her arresting beauty and artistic grace, she touts the unmistakable individualistic fortitude of a superstar capable of seamless inclusion into every genre and ensemble.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)