We Need To Start Talking About Ben Mendelsohn
Ben Mendelsohn has been working steadily in Australia since the late 1980’s, appearing only sporadically in American cinema in films like Vertical Limit and The New World. But ever since his U.S. breakthrough with Animal Kingdom, he has started to see his years of hard work and dedication pay off. He’s now an Emmy winner for his work on the show Bloodline and last year, he happened to appear in some billion dollar film called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Yet in spite of his ongoing success, it feels as if he has been going on unnoticed. While these days, he is often typecast as villains or crooks, Ben Mendelsohn manages to bring refreshing and original nuances to each of his portrayals. He can use just his eyes to reveal a character’s history even with limited screen time.
In his breakthrough turn in Animal Kingdom, he plays perhaps the most mysterious member of the sinister Cody clan known as Pope. While Jacki Weaver understandably got an Oscar nomination in Supporting Actress for her portrayal of the villainous matriarch “Smurf,” Ben Mendelsohn deserved to be in the conversation for Best Supporting Actor. Through the use of his cold and detached eyes throughout, Mendelsohn keeps you guessing what Pope is going to do or say with every time he appears on screen. Even when he says to his brother or his nephew that they can talk to him about anything and he appears to offer emotional support, his delivery is very calm and cool which contradicts his chilly facial glances, capturing his mystique. Even those within the Cody clan aren’t afraid to tremble over his slithery presence.
However, the performance where he first caught my attention was his bit role in The Dark Knight Rises. Mendelsohn plays a less mysterious villain in the form of corrupt CEO John Daggett. In spite of the fact he has a few scenes, he really makes the most of it. There is a scene where he and the main antagonist Bane (Tom Hardy) have a powerful exchange where Daggett tries to enforce dominion over him by reminding him of how he used his influence to buy their whole operation. Within a span of minutes, Mendelsohn captures Daggett’s fragile ego through the way he raises his voice and puts his face up against Bane’s, making himself feel bigger than he actually is, literally and figuratively. Yet as soon as Bane places his hand on his shoulder, he immediately starts quivering, further revealing his cowardice.
As the bank robber with a heart of gold named Robin in The Place Beyond The Pines, Mendelsohn plays a character that is refreshingly down to earth. While Robin is rather shady due to his bank robbing history and how he compulses Luke, played by Ryan Gosling, to go down the same path, Mendelsohn still portrays him in such an earnest manner, stealing the show from the more famous Ryan Gosling in the process. He portrays Robin as the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.
But his best performance and one of his most overlooked performances is his work in the British prison drama Starred Up. As Neville Love, the father of fellow inmate Eric (Jack O’Connell), he showcases a similarly earnest nature as he did with his performance in The Place Beyond The Pines. Only here, his Neville has a rougher exterior. He appears all domineering and hard-edged through the way he snarls and points his fingers. But in spite of the fact that he is a prisoner with intimidating swagger, there are moments where we see him as a typically concerned father.
There is a scene where he is talking with a psychologist trying to help his son named Oliver (Rupert Friend) and as soon as they start talking, Neville starts shaking and clutching his hands. He speaks in a rather deadpan manner which contradicts the frantic nature of his eyes, signaling how desperate he is for options on how to help his troubled son. Yet as soon as he becomes reminded of his absence from his son’s life, he suddenly turns on a dime and reverts to his rough and snarly exterior. Only here, we recognize that his anger is due to his guilt and self-loathing. Even though we don’t know the full details of Neville’s past, Ben Mendelsohn is still able to expertly convey his backstory through bodily expressions.
However, after getting overlooked for his film work, this could be the year where he finally gets his due. In Darkest Hour, which is a biopic about Winston Churchill, Mendelsohn will have a supporting role as King George VI, a role that will not only be a 180 from the shadier characters he has played but is also a role that won Colin Firth his first Oscar in The King’s Speech.
Even if he has only a handful of scenes, there’s little doubt that the quality of his work will be there because as he has shown in his previous performances, no matter how big or small his role may be, Ben Mendelsohn always manages to leave an impression.