Gather ‘round the Yule log, everyone, for it’s that time of the holidays again when we round up our film favorites from the year and hand out our awards for favorite movie scene, movie, filmmaker, and performer. This year, I was tasked with writing about our Performer of the Year…okay, actually, I jumped at the chance to do it. How could one not when the recipient of our award is the dynamic Alicia Vikander?
2015 has unquestionably been the 27-year-old Swedish actress’ year. Who would have thought that, way back in January when I sat in a darkened theater, watching a screening of Seventh Son and thinking, Oh, honey, you’re so much better than this; you’re ALL better than this that we’d end up here? But here we are, and here’s where we should be, for there is no one more deserving of the award than Vikander, who mesmerized every time she was on screen this year.
There’s just something about her, with her willowy, dark-eyed beauty and melodic voice that hearkens back to the elegant era of Old Hollywood. Perhaps it’s her background in ballet that lends itself to her easy, captivating grace, though she admits those dreams of dancing were short-lived: “I don’t have the best feet,” she explained in an interview this week with The Guardian.
But what seemed like a crushing blow to a viable career as a professional ballet dancer was actually a blessing in disguise for Vikander, who realized in her teen years that she was perhaps more suited to acting than dancing, anyway. Ten years later, we as her captive audience are the luckier for it.
Seven films in which she played a major role were released this year, and they were all over the map in terms of, well, everything: Genre, critical and box office reception, budget, and scope, just to name a few. Testament of Youth was a love story set in World War I, Seventh Son a sweeping fantasy epic, Son of a Gun a chaotic Aussie thriller, ’60s era The Man from U.N.C.L.E. an action-comedy spy romp, and Burnt a straightforward rom-com. Regarding her two most talked-about roles, Ex Machina and The Danish Girl, the first was a slick, sci-fi psychological thriller and the latter a beautiful biopic period piece that may very well net Vikander her first Academy Award – if Ex Machina doesn’t do it first.
It’s a dizzying array that would have daunted most actresses, but not Vikander. The idea of throwing herself into the lives of characters and fully embracing them in every aspect was something that resonated within her from a young age, not just as an actress, but as a girl who pondered the kind of woman she wanted to be.
“I vividly remember watching women in films when I was nine or 10, picturing them being what I’d be like as an adult,” Vikander reminisced in the same interview. “I had these real female crushes on certain actresses. And I’d watch them thinking, one day I’ll be that. One day I’ll be a woman. It’s obviously not the same, but I get that wish to find your complete form.”
In a strange way, then, it’s fitting that her true breakout role was in Ex Machina, in which her AI robot character, Ava, raised complex and difficult questions about what defines one’s humanity, if one can be truly human without that intangible something that some call a soul, and, yes, what it means to be a fully-realized “real” woman. Vikander was remarkable in the role, pulling from her dancer’s background of complete bodily control to imbue Ava with an unnerving aspect that kept audiences firmly planted in the uncanny valley every time she was on screen. Her technically precise movements and the slightly alien, birdlike tilt of her head as she spoke were unsettling in the best of ways. That she was still able to hurdle over this natural handicap to become a sympathetic character is a testament to Vikander’s skill and control an actress, perfectly balancing the artificial with the human, metal with warmth. It was an “otherness” that set Vikander apart from her peers in the film (though they were also excellent), and in a different way, that sets her apart from the sea of young actresses just starting to make a name for themselves in Hollywood. There is something in her that bends but does not break, and commands the eye to watch her every time she is on the screen. It is a skill that takes most actresses years to learn but Vikander comes by naturally. As director Alex Garland said of his young ingénue in an interview with The Telegraph, “She has got that dancer’s stoicism. She’s pretty tough, Alicia, and it is not an affectation. Somewhere in her, she is hard as nails.”
Just look at her work in The Danish Girl opposite Eddie Redmayne. It seems absurd to think that one could ever upstage last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Actor in a film tailor-made to put another phenomenal performance of his right back into the Oscar conversation. Yet, Vikander did. Her Gerda was as much the titular girl as Redmayne’s Lili, and perhaps even more so as hers was the more difficult position and conflicted performance in the film.
Vikander’s performance questioned what it means to be a woman on multiple levels that were of a far more subtle nature. As a devoted wife, Vikander’s performance was staggering – as Lili gained everything she wanted and her happiness increased, Gerda slowly lost the one person she’d cared about the most in inverse proportion. Lili still had the wife she’d always loved, but Gerda lost the husband that had been the love of her life, and Vikander was fearless and heartbreaking and fierce.
And other questions of womanhood were explored: Sexuality and if it’s mutable, whether or not a woman is still desirable if the man she once loved no longer loves her as a man, the fundamental need for physical contact with a man, as a straight woman, who can satisfy her sexually, who can make her feel secure. But these issues, so central to the film, transcended the screen and became questions to ponder far beyond the moment one left the theater thanks to Vikander’s depth.
But that is the young actress’s gift. She has the uncanny ability to take any role and transform it into something more, and she does it effortlessly. The remarkable thing is that she has so much more time to grow into her talents and get even better. How many roles might earn her a nomination for an Academy Award by the time she’s 30? It’s shocking to think that there’s no reasonable limit to that number, and that’s why we expect her to only impress us more with each passing year.