Within the first few minutes of Midsommar, Ari Aster‘s sophomore film, it becomes evident exactly why Florence Pugh was cast. Pugh stars as Dani, a young woman who, even before embarking on an ill-fated trip to Sweden, is shouldering a great deal of responsibility and is visibly out of her depth. Her family life is complicated and her boyfriend of four years, Christian (Jack Reynor), is detached and on the verge of breaking up with her. We are introduced to Dani as she talks to Christian on the phone about what is troubling her. Shot in close up, Dani’s emotions are writ large across Pugh’s face. Her eyes well up with tears but she badly wants to hold them back, to convince herself that everything is going to be alright. We can see that years of stressful personal relationships have worn away at Dani. As she is pushed to her limit, it will inevitably drive her to a breakdown or a breakthrough. Maybe even both.
Over the next two and a half hours, Aster demonstrates how Dani’s strength ebbs and flows as the film’s eponymous pagan ceremony pulls her into its chaotic midst. His meticulously crafted screenplay and the stunning cinematography from Pawel Pogorzelski help envelope the audience into the film’s world. However, the crux of Midsommar lies with Pugh’s work as Dani navigates a folk horror nightmare that forces her to confront her personal demons and negotiate what she is willing to sacrifice.
That Pugh does this so well is, while commendable, no surprise to anyone familiar with her work. The young actress has been turning in remarkable performances for several years, but it feels like 2019 is the year that she truly starts to get the recognition she more than deserves. Midsommar is already one of the year’s most discussed films and will surely establish Pugh as one hell of a scream queen. She also stars as Amy March in Greta Gerwig‘s Little Women, set for release in December. With a cast that includes Meryl Streep, Saoirse Ronan, and Laura Dern, Pugh will have the opportunity to demonstrate her abilities as an actor and will no doubt prove why she deserves to be talked about alongside some of the best talents working today.
The intensity that Pugh brings to Midsommar is identifiable to anyone familiar with her breakout performance in 2016’s Lady Macbeth. Director William Oldroyd’s adaptation of the Nikolai Leskov short story features Pugh not as The Bard’s great villainess as one might assume, but as an equally conniving 19th century Lady, Katherine Lester. Shackled to an older man in a loveless marriage and confined to the grounds of his estate, Katherine is yearning to break free. When her husband takes a trip and Katherine is given an inch, she takes a mile. What begins as an understandable exploration of her freedom soon turns sinister as it becomes apparent that Katherine will do anything to keep control and prevent herself from ever being subservient to anyone again.
The film’s presentation of tensions over race, gender, and class is complex. For much of the runtime, it is difficult to distill exactly how we should feel about Katherine. At times she seems intended to come across as a rogue proto-feminist who will no longer allow her sexual freedom to be curbed by the men she too often finds herself at the mercy of. At other times, she is undeniably deranged and her actions unconscionable.
This is a challenging role to play. Pugh is tasked with keeping us invested in Katherine’s story while also keeping the character firmly at arm’s length from us. If we feel we know Katherine too well, the intrigue wears off, but if we feel too removed from her, it’s difficult to care. A portrayal such as this one is a delicate balancing act, but Pugh absolutely pulls it off. She imbues her performance with a powerful sense of presence that makes one feel as though they’re watching the action unfold on a stage rather than a screen.
She uses her small stature to her advantage as Katherine, along with her cherubic facial features. Katherine’s youthful appearance gives her an air of innocence, but Pugh never leans on a doe-eyed portrayal as that would be taking the easy way out. Her strong brows loan themselves to the look of contempt that Katherine often possesses when being forced to look up at those she considers beneath her. While she remains mannered and restrained, there is a palpable sense that Katherine’s forceful nature is always present, brewing just beneath the surface. Pugh’s full-bodied performance is controlled and measured to the point that she exudes the sense of a calm before the storm.
Conversely, Pugh is also an actor capable of radiating warmth. In David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King, Pugh stars opposite Chris Pine’s Robert the Bruce as his wife, Elizabeth de Burgh. Elizabeth enters Scotland as an outsider, but she immediately starts adapting and settling in, and befriends Robert’s daughter from a previous marriage. Pugh’s work during her introduction is crucial for her character and the story. Elizabeth’s connection to her new kingdom is visible in every expression. Her face is open in a way that is comparable to actors such as Juliette Binoche and her eyes gleam with hope. There’s no doubt that Elizabeth wants to fit in here, and later in the film when her loyalty is tested, these early scenes are all that’s needed for us to understand why her resolution doesn’t break.
While Pine’s work as Robert is primarily focussed on appearing steadfast as he leads his armies, Elizabeth is a character who is out of her depth in a war context. She is often shaken and emotional, and this shows on her face, but her performance isn’t histrionic. Pugh is a great crier if ever there was one, but her tears never feel overwrought. While Pugh is in a supporting role, she is no doubt the emotional core of the film and necessary for us to feel a connection to the historical retelling.
Earlier this year, Pugh stepped into the physically demanding role of portraying WWE wrestler Paige in Stephen Merchant’s Sundance hit, Fighting With My Family. This was a change of pace for Pugh and it surely necessitated her going outside of her comfort zone to take on the role of a woman who has been wrestling since she was a child. Pugh conveys Paige’s familiarity with being inside the ring almost effortlessly and she always comes across as having a preternatural ability when it comes to the physicality of wrestling. There’s an undeniable sense of pressure that comes with playing a real person, and Pugh does Paige justice while also making the role her own.
While Fighting With My Family is markedly different from Pugh’s prior work, it also allows her to showcase further the skills she’s developed in previous films. As she did in Lady Macbeth, Pugh can convey a character’s forceful nature and does so when Paige steps into the ring. But outside of it, she’s a very vulnerable character who struggles to fit in. There’s more than a few emotional beats that hit hard precisely because of the tension between Paige’s fearless persona and the real person that, like Elizabeth in Outlaw King, is having her fierce familial loyalty tested. Pugh excels by making a larger-than-life figure such as Paige feel undeniably real and relatable. Pugh has been cast in an undisclosed role in Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, and while there’s no clue yet as to when exactly the film will be released or who Pugh will be playing, the work she’s done in Fighting With My Family is proof that she will be up for any physical challenges the film throws at her.
It’s worth repeating that Pugh is — and this cannot be stressed enough — a great crier. When she needs to, she can wear her emotions on her face and convey every feeling her character is experiencing. Her Midsommar co-star Jack Reynor has remarked that during a particularly emotional scene, he felt he wasn’t even acting, just responding in a human way to the work Pugh was doing as she unleashed Dani’s pain and suffering in a shockingly visceral moment. When the scene calls for it, Pugh holds nothing back as an actor. Similar to Toni Collette’s monstrous and magnificent performance in Hereditary, Pugh is adept at manipulating her features to appear almost unrecognizable. As Midsommar‘s promotional campaign has capitalized on — with posters and promo images of Pugh, mouth agape in agony, tears, and snot covering her face — she commits and is unafraid to mold herself.
In her work across genres and historical periods, Pugh has proven herself as an immensely talented and undeniably fearless actor. Midsommar and Little Women will no doubt be two of the most talked-about films of 2019, which means Pugh is primed to make audiences gush over her incredible versatility. As she continues to refine her skills, it feels like the acting world is her oyster. Wherever her career takes her next, it will surely be a gift worth celebrating — but maybe not with a Swedish Pagan celebration.