Emily, Claire, my desire

David Thomson

David Thomson on the allure of Emily Blunt and Claire Foy in the age of #MeToo.

18 September 2018 11:27

Last night, Claire Foy won an Emmy for her role in The Crown. So we thought we’d post out this article about both her and Emily Blunt, by the film critic David Thomson, from our Inaugural Issue:


In the spring of this year, I saw a couple of new films with English actresses whom I like a lot. In A Quiet Place, Emily Blunt plays a wife and mother living with her family in an idyllic rural hideaway. There is a problem, though: her world has suffered some imprecise disaster and is now beset by monsters who hate all noise and will punish it with extreme prejudice. So Emily’s life is hard. In feeding her family she risks dropping a saucepan, but she’s also pregnant again – and even if Mum can hush herself during delivery, that’s a lot to ask of the baby.

I found A Quiet Place rigged and ludicrous; I sighed for Emily having to make the film, no matter that her co-star, co-writer and director was her husband John Krasinski. Anyway, I was wrong. All over the nation, audiences were agog at the suspense of its situation. The film took in $50 million in its first weekend. I shudder at the sequels being contemplated.

This was so much better than how the other film performed. Unsane ($3.7 million on its first weekend) is a fevered melodrama in which Claire Foy plays an edgy, unlikeable American woman who gets herself into a mental institution by being difficult. Or does she deserve to be there? I can’t explain all this, because I didn’t understand its delusional plot developments. Directed by Steven Soderbergh (promising) and made on an iPhone (enterprising), Unsane also struck me as rigged and ludicrous. But it was riveting because it grasped the paranoia of being on the edge of a breakdown. That wasn’t just the iPhone. It was Claire Foy. I’m not being clairvoyant, or funny, but I suspect she is a great actress.

Foy and Blunt are comparable. Emily seems older, but they are only a year apart in age, both in their early thirties. They are both known, esteemed and at the point in their careers at which they might become ‘movie stars’, so long as the old scheme of stardom persists.

I admit that I like them both, and that has to be explored. We are in a situation where men talking about movie actresses because they find them attractive or desirable – you still hear the murmur ‘sexy’ – can be incriminating. We are not supposed to voice such feelings, though the movie business has not given up on the impulse behind them. This leads to odd contradictions. At the Golden Globes awards in Los Angeles this past January, many people praised the #MeToo movement and excoriated those men (the Harveys) who have used the movies as a venue for sexual predatoriness. All those comments were deserved. But in the TV coverage of the show, there were commercials – for shampoo, say – that still traded on erotic codes of ‘beauty’, with voluptuous hair tossing in slow motion. The show also had ads for Fifty Shades Freed (James Foley, 2018) which was not #MeToo-ish, and earned about $100 million.

Maybe I am part of the culture that makes for Harveyism. But so are a lot of us. It comes to this: I do not want to meet Emily or Claire or be in the same room with them. But I like looking at them, and the absurd dream of being with them. And moviegoing is rooted in that looking. Most men – and most women – watch movies with similar vicarious fantasies. We do not shut our eyes or our desires in the dark. If that habit stops, the movies are over.

I admit that I like them both, and that has to be explored.

Because these thoughts are never going to materialise, I am promiscuous in my dreaming: so, keeping within the bounds of English actresses, I have found similar pleasures in seeing Rosamund Pike, Charlotte Riley, Helen McCrory, Keira Knightley, Emma Thompson, Charlotte Rampling and Dame Judi Dench (I have loved her since her Juliet in 1960 at the Old Vic). I’m that old, and I’m sure I’m forgetting others.

Still, if I slip back under cover as a respectable film critic, I do feel that Emily Blunt and Claire Foy are special. How can I convey that? Well, I recall seeing Meryl Streep in her second film, The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978) – in which she was not central – and guessing that she might turn out to be a great actress. How do we make and see movies without noting actual faces and feeling desire?

I noticed Emily first in My Summer of Love (2004), a tender picture in which she and Natalie Press played teenage lovers. The mood of that film came from its writer-director, Paweł Pawlikowski, who has since made Ida (2013), a masterpiece. He is the sort of director any actress would benefit from. Ever since Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith, or Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, those pacts have moved us, and sometimes they involved real love affairs. But nowadays we flinch a little at the idea of directors filming their mistresses.

Quite quickly, Emily proved very funny in her wry, knowing way in The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006) and Charlie Wilson’s War (Mike Nichols, 2007). She was a sidebar in those entertaining pictures, but vivid enough to make me hope to see her in a screwball comedy – a nearly forgotten genre about grown-ups making fools of themselves in romance. If you’re in doubt over that type of movie, you could try The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940), His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940) or The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941), and imagine Emily in remakes of those witty films, or in a new work made in their spirit.

My fondness for her has been tested. I thought The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2009) was pedestrian and prettified. She was fine as the baker’s wife in Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, 2014), but it was an atrocious version of Stephen Sondheim. Then I despaired of The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor, 2016), as much as I do now of A Quiet Place. These stories used her as a woman afraid – and too much victimisation is bad for an actress. Blunt needs to be strong and amused.

I might have given up on her but for Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2016). Here was an exceptional picture with respect for a woman keeping pace with men fighting the Mexican drug wars, without becoming as soulless as those men. Still, I regretted its final squashing of Emily’s character, and was not surprised by a sequel without her, Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado (Stefano Sollima, 2018), in which James Brolin and Benicio Del Toro were less hindered from being tough guys with guns. Blunt had once been ‘attached to’ that second film, but then she disappeared.

Sicario had been a rugged shoot, in dust and heat, and Emily didn’t work to be beautiful. A Quiet Place offers less chance still. Blunt is compelling as the mother who prepares to deliver her baby with a refugee monster from the Alien franchise waiting to hear a pin drop, and she does it without make-up or romantic lighting. If only she had better situations and a chance to speak – or laugh. With those monsters you can’t say a word!  It may be her husband making the film, but it’s an insane misuse of her.

Of course, she has Mary Poppins Returns (Rob Marshall, 2018) coming up for Christmas, and that could establish her as an international idol. She will likely be chipper and comic in it – and the last time Mary Poppins got out there the part won an Oscar. Still, there’s a snob in me eager to see Emily try Miss Julie, Hedda Gabler, Beatrice or Portia. I even thought of her as the mature Princess Margaret on a coming season of The Crown (that Margaret could be a screwball madcap – in fact, Helena Bonham-Carter has the part, and she can do it).

There’s a snob in me eager to see Emily try Miss Julie, Hedda Gabler, Beatrice or Portia.

That brings us to Claire Foy. She isn’t perfect as Queen Elizabeth II – she’s prettier than the real woman and categorically more intelligent. That smartness rides on Peter Morgan’s writing and the shape of his drama, on the show’s directors and the accumulated support of the cast.

But it was the meek insistence of Foy’s performance that gathered all the brilliant acting around it to mask or absolve the dullness in the House of Windsor. You can’t have this entertainment without some sacrifices. The show was a sly promotion for the British monarchy and a sophisticated soap opera.

Foy has done her bit now: for 20 episodes, on camera most of the time, she was radiant, pained and steadfast. It left the impression of a smart actress imprisoned in a part. As if it was a young queen taking on some strange majesty, you felt Foy learning to be an actress. Her filmography is limited, but twenty episodes of The Crown equals ten major pictures. Consider how much she learned about the camera and her own confidence. Then appreciate a creative actress longing to break out of the limits imposed by being the dutiful queen.

That’s the context for looking at Unsane, in which Foy’s ‘Sawyer Valentini’ explodes our wish to be sympathetic. You can’t take that film seriously as an organised drama, but it is hard to think of other performances so unerringly and alarmingly on the cusp of going mad. When I say that Unsane is riveting, that’s a measure of how it taught me to feel darkness in the eyes of Claire Foy. That could carry her beyond the irony in Emily Blunt’s gaze. Foy could be as good as Samantha Morton was in Longford (Tom Hooper, 2006), or Helena Bonham Carter in The Wings of the Dove (Iain Softley, 1997), two haunting and disturbing characters.

But talent has a hard time getting a career recognised. Foy was distressed to discover she was being paid less than Matt Smith for The Crown (he is good, but he is only her support). She doesn’t have a John Krasinski to look after her – though that could prove a blessing. Auteurs who love their muses are not always good for them. Coming up, Foy is in First Man (Damien Chazelle, 2018) – playing the wife to astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling). That may be a big picture (with a forbidding title), but I’m not thrilled for close-ups of an anxious wife watching TV.

It’s more encouraging to think that Foy will then play Lisbeth Salander in The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Fede Alvarez, 2018). Is the fickle public ready for more Salander? I’m not sure, though the role helped Rooney Mara find a stronger self in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011).

Foy and Blunt face an ancient dilemma in the film business. We are restless for new faces, fresh youth and its needy look. There are always younger women coming along, eager for a breakthrough like Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990), and they will work for less money than an established actress wants to accept. But the era of lasting star careers for actresses – Streep, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman (all past fifty) – is faltering.  There are now better opportunities for senior actresses (Dench, Mirren, Smith, Redgrave) than there are for women in their fifties.

This is unfair on actresses; in growing older they lose an edge of screen appeal that often intensifies for aging men. At 54, Brad Pitt seems at his peak as an actor, and as a power in the business. He has been a significant producer on many films, including The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011), 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013) and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016).

There are now better opportunities for senior actresses than there are for women in their fifties.

It is harder for women to sustain careers, while developing their own material and controlling their pictures. Angelina Jolie attempted that, but at 42 she talks about stopping as an actor. Nicole Kidman remains a seeker of challenging material. Those roads are tough. Sexual exploitation is part of the pressure on women, but so is the climate of men who reckon they understand business and power better than women do. That assumption dominates in so many other fields – including marriage.

Does Blunt mean to take charge of herself? I suspect she could become more successful – and less interesting. Whereas Foy might be headed for a greatness that exists on the edge of popular comfort. Unsane is defiantly uninterested in being liked.

In the history of the movies, some actresses were difficult and some were obedient. Assume that Foy might be in the difficult category. That may require challenging parts in brave pictures. Such things need smart and persevering producers and a willingness to take risks. Maybe she could play Louise Brooks in the film that has been begging to be made for seven decades, about an intense actress from the late 1920s (Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl) who was too special or disobedient for the business.

This essay first appeared in the Inaugural Issue of DRUGSTORE CULTURE. Buy a copy here.

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