Welcome to Filmographies, a biweekly column for completists. Every edition brings a new actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling.
We can’t always control when an actor gets their “moment.” The proclivities of stan and film Twitter are unpredictable. Sometimes, the most consistent performers are those who go largely unnoticed, and sadly so. Fascinating storytelling opportunities don’t always translate into mainstream fervor, in spite of their inherent value in highlighting the very merits of performance as a craft.
This week in Filmographies, I posit that Jamie Bell is one such actor whose breadth of onscreen work has remained reliably exciting and thought-provoking. Conventional Hollywood at large just doesn’t always indicate as such.
It all started with a reminder in the form of Rocketman. Dexter Fletcher’s psychedelic, rageful, loving musical remains one of the more recent examples of big-screen excellence that has quickly become a favorite. It’s not just because the film is visually stunning, aurally ambitious, and proficiently acted across the board. Rather, Rocketman’s very extravagance further compels me to look at its more subdued successes.
In particular, Bell’s supporting performance in the movie is a cinematic triumph that feels vastly underwritten about. I was there for it from the moment of casting and even did a quick once-through of Bell’s resumé back then in a bid to exemplify his suitability for the role of Bernie Taupin. To finally see it fully realized but still sorely underappreciated – considering a lack of supporting actor nomination nods, for instance – then inspired this in-depth study.
Since pirouetting his way into our hearts in Stephen Daldry’s coming-of-age drama Billy Elliot, Bell has chosen a dynamic path forward when navigating his onscreen endeavors. His projects rarely feel interchangeable with one another. Although some of the films themselves may leave audiences very conflicted, they are, more often than not, memorable.
Therefore, it’s actually much easier to section off Bell’s roles according to recurring themes across his filmography. Perhaps this isn’t an exact science – there will be commonalities between a number of his ventures – but it is definitely a helpful method when parsing through the evidence of his versatility.
To begin, a film such as Billy Elliot falls into a category of films that feature Bell’s most likable protagonists. His sensitive, restless performance of the eponymous main role, which earned him a Best Actor BAFTA at age 14, curries favor for the 11-year-old underdog who simply wants to dance some fucking ballet. Swearing is 100 percent required in that description, of course, as this dream of Billy’s is incongruous to the traditional rough-and-tough masculine expectations of the little mining town that he hails from.
Yet, Bell does not simply depict awkward earnestness with a sweetness that outshines the cutest child actors. When he must sulk in-frame (which understandably happens a fair bit amidst the depressing undertones of Billy Elliot), he sidesteps immature sullenness. Instead, Bell provides a melancholy depth to Billy. His chemistry with co-stars Julie Walters, Gary Lewis, and, most notably, Stuart Wells brings out the character’s conflicts, desires, and dualisms.
More instances of heroically tilted principal roles reoccur in the actor’s repertoire years after Billy Elliot, albeit less frequently than possibly expected. In this case, Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle fits the bill. The casting of an explicitly modern actor like Channing Tatum as a Roman officer is almost unfathomable due to its sheer anachronism. Nevertheless, the film finds assured footing when Bell’s Esca is introduced and camaraderie between both characters flourishes. Initially touted as a British servant to Tatum’s soldier – apparently a secondary player to the latter’s story of self-discovery – the brave Esca eventually comes into his own sense of purpose. Bell’s initially internal performance supplements this journey of self-actualization beautifully. The Eagle may suffer in pace and overall narrative, but Bell makes certain that his character fully exists across an emotional spectrum.
In Bell’s most substantial television stint, he headlined the AMC period series TURN: Washington’s Spies for four seasons. In doing so, he drew this non-American at least a little more into the intricacies of the Revolutionary War. TURN is a dramatization to the fullest extent, taking many liberties with historicism. Still, such creative choices bolster the many actors in the show. They give Bell ample opportunity to be troubled, loving, repressed, fiery, and desolate. A show like this one demands that he be cast in another serial production sooner than later.
Back on the big screen, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool takes Bell’s most ruminative qualities and channels them into a bona fide romantic lead. The Paul McGuigan-helmed biographical relationship drama definitely holds the distinction of being one of the softest films ever made. In something that’s by-and-large a typical biopic, Bell is still the perfect acting sparring partner opposite a resplendent, heartbreaking Annette Bening as its subject, Gloria Grahame. Bell and Bening are delightful together, imbuing their shared scenes with lovely respectful gentleness. Despite the inevitable grief already built into the film’s premise, the duo creates an organic, real space for such feelings to foster. Sadness is anything but cheapened.
One could technically consider Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin part of Bell’s selection of likable leads. To his credit, Bell absolutely takes on the role in spades. Ultimately, it is only a shame that the story itself loses steam the further it progresses. Instead, The Adventures of Tintin falls in line with Bell’s (largely commercial) endeavors that haven’t necessarily panned out, some serious potential notwithstanding.
Flags of Our Fathers, Jumper, Man on the Ledge, Fantastic Four, and 6 Days join these ranks. Do note that most of these movies don’t necessarily even stand up next to The Adventures of Tintin in terms of overall quality. However, Bell is the most valuable player in all of them.
Flags of Our Fathers features a sizable ensemble cast, but a good chunk of its narrative push greatly hinges on the optimism and innocence of Bell’s ill-fated Marine. In Jumper, the actor assumes the role of a trigger-happy assassin, injecting levity as well as a necessary jolt of chaotic energy into the movie as a whole. Man on the Ledge and 6 Days see Bell actually provide more charm and personality than their other respective leads. And Bell has one of the most forgiving parts in the unfortunately undercooked Fantastic Four reboot. His notable brotherly bond with Miles Teller – they play The Thing and Mr. Fantastic respectively – is a grounding presence in the movie.
Luckily, there are ensemble productions that effectively utilize the actor’s tenderness and empathy. Alongside Rocketman – the initial motivator of this piece – Deathwatch, Nicholas Nickleby, King Kong, Defiance, Jane Eyre, and Snowpiercer individually tap into Bell’s “wholesome character” streak, yet all of them feel fresh in their own ways.
The fact that Bell directly followed up the overwhelming attention garnered by Billy Elliot with a World War I-based horror film and a Charles Dickens adaptation proves fortuitous. His alliance with notable filmmakers such as Peter Jackson, Cary Fukunaga, and Bong Joon-ho offers him discernible credibility, too.
M.J. Bassett’s Deathwatch is one of the hidden gems in Bell’s filmography – a distinctly tense study of the darkness of human nature. There is an analogous sense of burning sincerity and determination at the core of the rest. Bell is all tragedy in Nicholas Nickleby, portraying a young man whose life from start to finish is observably pitiable. Give him the right impetus, though, and he reveals a fiery heart.
The same is said for his emotionally driven performances in King Kong, Defiance, Jane Eyre, Snowpiercer, and Rocketman. In the former two, he revels in youthful splendor, even letting loose in unbridled, screaming-and-crying type set-ups that thankfully don’t feel contrived. Bell colors his Snowpiercer character with relatable jitters. Deliberate as the film is in all aspects of production, its allowance for some improvisational skills on Bell’s part tethers us to a role that feels so close to reality.
In contrast, Jane Eyre presents a graver Bell than is usually seen, wherein he delivers a portrait of restraint due to obligation. Finally, to celebrate Rocketman without Bell’s deeply kind-hearted and unduly loyal Bernie Taupin is totally absurd. Taron Egerton acts his heart out at the film’s core and his performance is made even more meaningful because of Bell.
Audiences would be forgiven for only being well-acquainted with Bell’s penchant for decent characters. However, a darker flipside exists in his repertoire that is extra beguiling to unpack. I’ve taken to calling these his in-between performances, ones that inspire the most conflict in me as a viewer because this assortment of projects may not necessarily align with my values as a film-watcher.
Early instances of Bell’s experimental work comprise David Gordon Green’s Undertow, Thomas Vinterberg’s Dear Wendy, Arie Posin’s The Chumscrubber, and David Mackenzie’s Hallam Foe. In all four movies, Bell plays offbeat loners to varying degrees of extremity. For instance, he surely seems much less unpredictable and disturbed as a desperate boy on the run in Undertow compared to his role as a gun-loving pacifist in Dear Wendy. The latter is especially harrowing to experience, given its display of inherently contradictory values to – however haphazardly – make some incisive statement on a culture of firearms in the United States.
Likewise, The Chumscrubber adopts a commentative stance, this time in the realm of prescription drug abuse and the stunted, inauthentic environment of suburban cul-de-sac living. Bell expertly embodies the many facets of a teenager whose experiences of isolation and loneliness come to a head when he discovers that a friend has committed suicide. The film uses some whimsy and a degree of satirical humor to create an uncanny milieu for these issues to percolate. However, Bell especially plays the role in such a straightforward way that it becomes eerily poignant. His layered take on apathy is an active burial of emotion after emotion until his character reaches a heart-wrenching implosion.
Bell does something similar in Hallam Foe, exhibiting legitimately spine-chilling behavior in the film while boasting a multifaceted inner self. He portrays a boy on the cusp of coming-of-age who is unable to deal with the loss of his mother. Hence, he resorts to spying on local communities and forming strange, unhealthy relationships with older women who enter his life. Yet, Bell doesn’t simply ask for sympathy through his performance, nor does he carve a damning portrait of this weird kid in a mess of figuring himself out. Instead, he finds an essential balance on the pendulum of morality that encapsulates the messy experience of anguish.
Furthermore, where the topic of ethical standard is concerned, Bell isn’t afraid to dig deeper still. This practice doesn’t always make for enjoyable viewing experiences, although they remain uncomfortably salient and deserve mention. These aren’t necessarily films that espouse joyful, pleasant, or playful qualities, anyway.
Retreat, Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, Filth, Donnybrook, and Skin, in all honesty, just made me go “what the fuck?” These are movies with unforgivable violence in their veins. They all take advantage of a very stoic and at times even scary Bell. I know, it’s uncanny.
This is particularly evident in Skin, in which Bell dons the guise of a former neo-Nazi who seeks reform and repentance. To the film’s credit, this narrative doesn’t actively seek to romanticize or validate the abhorrence of its subject matter. Skin denounces white supremacy as much as it can. Bell doesn’t even really look or sound like himself in the movie either, making this one of his most immersive turns yet.
Of course, the argument that any humanizing portrayal of the topic feels superfluous is wholly valid. That’s certainly my take on the film. Nevertheless, such unresolved narrative implications make up some of Bell’s most daring cinematic choices. This is certainly reflected in the sadist he plays in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, the desperate fighter in Donnybrook, the drug-addicted police officer in Filth, and the ticking time bomb of a military man in Retreat.
Diving into the many twists and turns of Bell’s resumé means coming out on the other side feeling strangely rewarded and kind of sad that it’s over. Despite several speed bumps along the way, his affinity for variability encourages viewers to not only acknowledge but actually somewhat appreciate the extremities of storytelling. In the past 20 years, audiences have had the privilege of watching Bell truly test himself in some very gutsy work. His films are the very epitome of adventures. And his characters? Well, they make up a mosaic of the most compelling people we’ve gotten on screen from an actor of his generation.