Jonathan Pryce did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Sam Lowry in Brazil.
Brazil is pretty much the definition of a director's film. Every inch of the film is in service of Terry Gilliam's vision of the film, and with these sort of films a great performance can be difficult. The reason is that performances are usually not their for the actor really explore their character and show off their abilities. Instead their performances are just used for the director's vision and only to enhance his projection. In this case most of the performances are very much as strange as the backgrounds just like many of the supporting players in A Clockwork Orange, and they are completely absurd. This is not to say these are bad performance, they most certainly are not, but they are simple and to the point.
Just like A Clockwork Orange though these limitations on the actors does not carry over to the lead performance here with Jonathan Pryce as Sam Lowry the bureaucrat who attempts to fix an error. Jonathan Pryce is the non absurd character actually, and instead stands as the straight man for the entire film. His character rather being just part of the environment as most of the others seem to be, Lowry stands as the man that we see in the environment. He is not comfortable with it like those who seem perfectly natural in it, and he is the only character that the audience can really identify with.
Jonathan Pryce actually has a surprising important role here because he is necessary for the success of the film. If there was this character who we could go along with the film might become maybe too much of a cluster to understand. Pryce knows that his character needs to be an anchor for the audience, he needs to be a normal person, and that is exactly as Pryce portrays him. Pryce does not go for any sort of flashiness in his performance. He takes a down to earth approach for his character, and just tries his best to show how an average man who behave given the circumstances of all the madness that is going around him at all times.
Interestingly enough Jonathan Pryce's Sam Lowry just like the leads from Kiss of the Spider Woman also spends a great deal of time escaping his current reality with fantasy and dreams. Pryce though even in his imaginary scenes where he is dressed in a gaudily made costume with giant wings flying where he tries to save a damsel in distress and fights various monsters puts on emphasis in reality. Even in these completely bizarre moments he still is completely straight forward in the matter, he portrays these scenes even as simply a down to earth hero, Pryce always keeps a straight face in these dreams no matter how odd they get.
Pryce is really perfect in the role as he acts just as anyone would given the situations he gets involved in. Even in the scenes that are really pretty much acts of physical comedy. In these moments Pryce does not overplay them and in fact allows them to be humorous well still stressing the more disturbing qualities of that is around him. He grounds every scene in a realism even when everything around him is anything but. Pryce realizes the stresses of these situations as a combined degree of stress, fear, and exhaustion as well. Although Pryce does suggests that Lowry is partially used to this structured madness, he still gets across the idea that the lunacy can still surprise him.
Due to this down to earth approach it is very easy to sympathize and follow along Sam's attempts to try to wade through the curious bureaucracy and save the literal woman of his dreams. His largely romantic adventure is extremely well portrayed by Pryce with a great deal of genuine truthful love in his performance showing that Sam's intentions are purely love. He though does have a nice degree of humor to when she fakes her own attraction to him, and Pryce reaction is just perfect. Pryce though is terrific because he absolutely is convincing in this love Sam has for this woman he barely knows, and actually makes what he does for her believable.
Jonathan Pryce with this straight forward approach makes a likable protagonist, and a moving portrayal of a man moved by emotion in a world that is moved along by anything but. It also succeeds in making the eventual fate of this normal man truly something heartbreaking. In his very final scene his final look on his face and the way he sings the song Brazil at the end is something that is truly haunting. Pryce really is essential to this film's success because of he is the central figure we can attach to within all of the over complexity around him, and stands as a man who the individual who falls victim to machinations of the state. Pryce's work here may not be a performance that forces attention upon itself, but it is one that absolutely serves its much needed purpose to its fullest extent.