By © Jane Freebury
New work by actor Ben Mendelsohn can be easy to miss. Not often the lead, he can pop up in unexpected places, like Buckingham Palace where he was an elegant and diffident George VI opposite Gary Oldman’s Churchill in the Darkest Hour.
In this role, as with most, he appears to be completely comfortable in his character’s skin. It also has to be said that the effect on Mendelsohn of groomed hair and a well-tailored suit can be transformative. His flair for accents, probably from having lived in both the US and Britain during his childhood, counts for something too.
Since 2017 when he played the British monarch, Mendelsohn has shown up in surprising places. In a Steven Spielberg science fiction (Ready Player One), as the sheriff in the latest Robin Hood, as a pustulent King Henry IV (The King), in a relationship drama directed by his former wife (Untogether), and as the villain Talos in two Marvel superhero blockbusters.
In The Land of Steady Habits, by Nicole Holofcener, a creator of subtle relationship dramas, his performance as a feckless father and husband is a very rewarding, if discomforting experience. It is currently streaming on Netflix.
Ever since 2010, when David Michod’s very impressive crime drama Animal Kingdom (streaming on Stan) catapulted Mendelsohn – and his compatriot the redoubtable Jacki Weaver – into the international film industry, he has been in high demand.
Only three years after its release, the Washington Post was declaring that ‘Ben Mendelsohn was everywhere. Finally’. People in the US had begun to take notice.
They certainly took notice when he appeared in Season 1 of the television series Bloodline, in which he played the wayward elder son of the wealthy Florida establishment. His performance that garnered a Golden Globe nomination and won an Emmy was mesmerising.
Since the chilling menace for his character in Animal Kingdom, Mendelsohn has slipped into roles that have offered him an opportunity to do more of same. He has done so with relish, including his portrayal of a hopeless, sleazy heroin addict in Killing Them Softly.
Since he joined the A-list stars on screen, actors like Ryan Gosling (in The Place Beyond the Pines) and Tom Hardy and Christian Bale in (The Dark Knight Rises), Mendelsohn has moved on from the local industry where he began as a teenager.
However, his first Australian film in nearly a decade, Babyteeth, directed by Shannon Murphy, is due for release this year.
It is generally agreed that the beloved Australian classic of 1987, The Year My Voice Broke, by writer-director John Duigan, was Mendelsohn’s breakout role in the Australian film industry. Though he wasn’t the main character, he was memorable as Trevor, the roguish risk taker fatally drawn to danger.
Noah Taylor was the lead as Danny, as socially awkward as Trevor was confident, and representing the sensible devoted alternative for love interest Freya (Loene Carmen).
Back then, fans tended to confuse Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn, who are the same age and somewhat similar physically, despite their different roles. It’s amusing to hear that today Mendelsohn is still being mistaken for Taylor. Fans have been asking him for his signature because they think it was him playing Locke in the television series Game of Thrones. It was, of course, Taylor.
That Mendelsohn can inhabit a small or support role, and still leave filmgoers with the overwhelming impression of his presence has become something of a pattern during his career. He has managed to make a little go a long way.
He is best known internationally for his villainous characters, but he wasn’t always the bad boy. There is a sweet side too. In The Big Steal of 1990 directed by Nadia Tass he shows considerable natural charm as the lead character opposite Claudia Karvan. They were both teenagers at the time.
Just after this film, Mendelsohn had a role in the film Spotswood (aka The Efficiency Expert) directed by Mark Joffe. It starred an as yet little known, mild mannered Welsh actor who would traumatise the filmgoing world with one of the screen’s most enduring and grotesque villains, Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, opposite Jodie Foster.
In a recent interview posted online, Mendelsohn cites Anthony Hopkins as one of his most important mentors. It is an intriguing comment. Did the idea of becoming a supervillain take shape after that encounter?
Both GQ and Slate magazine have nominated Mendelsohn as the new, favourite bad guy, while the Financial Times wrote last year that he had become the king of villains.
What does it take to be really good at villainy? Gravitas, he says.
Perhaps he was on his way to something different before he moved to the US. In Beautiful Kate, the fine dark family drama by Rachel Ward, that was released in 2009, he was a complex and ambiguously drawn character. Of course, we will never know because in 2010 Mendelsohn’s world changed in a very big way with Animal Kingdom.
The trajectory his screen persona has taken, especially overseas, is a big step away from the type of knockabout, roguish Aussie bloke, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous. Away from the larrikin roles of his early career during the 1990s-2000s, in films like Idiot Box, Return Home, and Mullet. It is a big step but it isn’t entirely inconsistent.
He’s moved on. Larrikin no more.
First published in the Canberra Times on 2 May 2020
*Featured image: Anders (Ben Mendelsohn), a troubled man, in The Land of Steady Habits
Without going ‘the full Mendo’, here are some of Ben’s best
Compiling recommended viewing is tricky because, Mendelsohn may be the best thing in a small role but the film hasn’t a lot to recommend it. Ridley Scott’s disappointing Exodus: Gods and Kings, in which Mendelsohn plays an Egyptian viceroy, is a case in point.
He is, however, a fine villain in Spielberg’s typically polished space adventure, Ready Player One, and in Orson Krennic’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in which he shows great sartorial panache.
A look backwards at The Big Steal (Nadia Tass, 1990) makes for a charming introduction to the sunny side of the Mendelsohn screen persona. It is also a very good film, with a sweetness not often found in Australian film these days.
Return Home (Ray Argall, 1990) is also well worth a look, a fine contemplative study of suburban life.
See The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan, 1987) if you haven’t yet. A landmark film of the early industry revival with Mendelsohn and Noah Taylor when they were just starting out long, light years from their international careers.
Hunt Angels (Alec Morgan, 2006), a docu-drama about an intriguing, entrepreneurial local filmmaker, is a small favourite Mendelsohn film of mine.
Beautiful Kate (Rachel Ward, 2009) is an exquisite dark family drama with excellent performances from everyone, including Mendelsohn.
Mendelsohn apparently shocked himself by his own performance in Animal Kingdom (David Michod, 2010), that superb noir about a Melbourne crime family.
Mendelsohn makes a strong impression in the early scenes of The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013). Not an easy thing to do when playing opposite Ryan Gosling.
In Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017), he appears as the King of England during World War II. He fully matches the very good performance from Gary Oldman as Churchill.
Mendelsohn is in very good form in the finely tuned drama, The Land of Steady Habits (Nicole Holofcener, 2018), as a wealthy Connecticut businessman who lets his family down.
Mendelsohn, almost a bit too convincing as an ailing monarch in David Michod’s latest, The King (2019), is a scene stealer till his death bed.
First published in the Canberra Times on 2 May 2020