Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Alternate Best Actor 1980: Edward Woodward and Jack Thompson in Breaker Morant

Edward Woodward did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying the titular Lt. Harry "Breaker" Morant.

Breaker Morant is an excellent film about three lieutenants court martialed for executing prisoners during the Boer war. 

Now I did put Jack Thompson as the only nominee but after the film I feel it is best to review both leads of the film as Woodward's performance should not be forgotten. Woodward as Morant gives often a withdrawn but interesting enough a very emotional performance. The reason for this is that he plays a soldier in the British army. Although he is a special unit mostly composed of Australians to deal with the Boer guerilla fighters he still is a British soldier and still therefore has the manner of a British soldier. it is always something to watch an actor give a powerful performance while still being in the restrictions of their character.

Woodward is terrific in creating Breaker Morant as a character and the history of the man even though that is something we only ever receive glimpses of it. Woodward throughout the film keeps Morant as the perfect soldier in his posture and overall manner. There are breaches of this at times but he is always very firm in being the soldier he would have to be to be the career soldier he is. Woodward is uncompromising in this depiction is something quite special because in his portrayal he shows an emotionally volatile nature in Morant even while he stays in structures of being the ideal British soldier.

We see the killing of the men that Morant ordered to killed in flash back. Woodward is outstanding in these scenes as we see the workings of this man and the way that he came to kill the men. What really drives Morant more than anything was that his friend was killed by the Boer in a brutal fashion and what he is doing is taking revenge out on them any way he could. Woodward is especially chilling because he conveys this violent intensity in these scenes well staying well put together for the most part. When he orders someone to do die he does not yell it, rather Woodward delivers it in a very simple yet harsh fashion as he stays cold on the surface even as he burns inside.

Woodward is brilliant in the way that he makes Morant still such a refined fellow who you would not think would be capable of such horrible actions. Woodward does have a certain charm, and more than that there is always an underlying humanity in his performance. Although he does act professional it is never that of a heartless professional in anyway. When he orders the killings it is not of a passionless man but instead a man whose passions in fact overwhelm him to do such things. Woodward mostly does this through his eyes which are so piercing in the way they portray the emotions in this man so fervently while the rest of his body tries hard to suppress them.

Woodward does not necessarily make you sympathize with the man, but he importantly does make you understand the man. Whenever he explains why he has done such things in the court or in a more private moment with one of the men we can see that where the atrocities came from are quite clear. On one hand there is that sense of duty which Woodward is masterful in depicting. That pride in being a soldier is always something that he brings to Morant with such tremendous affirmation, he shows the soldier who would follow such orders as well as even how the man could keep stay so calm, cool and even witty during his own execution.

In the same man though he does bring out the very human qualities. Whenever he speaking of the killing it is clear that the pain of his friends death is never something he can forget, Woodward makes it something he cannot even ignore. It is something on him at all times. That is not all though and Woodward never leaves him as just a man with a vendetta either. His pain is past that as in the court room scenes there is also a bitterness in him over the refusal of his higher ups to recognize the fact that what he did was part of the duty a duty that he served proudly. Woodward makes the betrayal known in a powerful way in which he both underplays but forcefully establishes these feelings when he admonishes the court.

There is a little more than just the soldier though in the briefest of moments when it is mentioned he was engaged to the sister of his friend who was killed. These are done with the utmost subtly but Woodward makes this moment quite beautiful in his subtle facial reactions. There is an incredible poignancy that Woodward brings to his performance in these moments suggesting there could have been so much more for Woodward if he had not been part of this war. One particularly great moment is when a sympathetic soldier suggests escape to him but he refuses saying "He has been everywhere". It is heartbreaking because Woodward suggests that really what Morant means is he has in actually no where to go as he has no purpose outside the army, and nothing left to go to.

This is a great performance by Edward Woodward due to the complexities that he brings to the part. There is never moment where he just makes Breaker Morant a typical man in any way. He makes him a charming poet with qualities like loyalty and bravery in him, but in the same man there lies hatred and the ability to do some very terrible things. There is never a disconnection and credit must be given to Woodward is that he never demands empathy or sympathy with his performance he lets Morant be Morant. Woodward puts him as a man and lets you judge him any way you wish. Woodward gives a fully realizes portrayal of Morant as  human being witt many good qualities but as well many flaws.
Jack Thompson did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite winning Cannes and an AFI award, for portraying Major J.F. Thomas in Breaker Morant.

Apparently the often repeated fact that Samuel L. Jackson won the only award ever for Best Supporting Actor in Cannes is no truer than that Columbus was trying to prove the world was round. Jack Thompson also won the limited Best Supporting Actor award at Cannes for his performance here although I would not put him in the supporting category. His role is technically much more limited and less complex than Edward Woodward's performance but he has the showiest role in the film receiving the most focus in the courtroom scenes as well has several scenes outside of the courtroom from his perspective.

The courtroom, as shown by films like Judgment at Nuremberg, The Verdict and Anatomy of a Murder, can often be a great showcase for acting. This is most certainly true in this film and most of this is brought by Thompson as the Australian Major who defends the three men and tries his best to help them even though the court very much wants to bring their conviction quickly to use them as scapegoats for all the atrocities committed during the war. Thomas though although is the man that the men choose he is not experienced in the military trial as well as not even as this sort of defense.

In the early trial scenes Thompson is rather good in showing Thomas work up to be able to defend them properly which Thompson does very well with his  hesitations and nervousness expressed along with an attempt at being properly in charge of the situation. Once Thomas feels confidant though he comes out as the sense of righteous indignation of the film. Thompson has the right style of cross examination showing exactly how Thomas will try to get to his point during the trial which is that the men were following the orders that brought the atrocities rather than the men just going off on their own.

Thompson brings out the point that Thomas is trying to make marvelously through his performance because there actually is not the type of sympathy one might expect from the good defense attorney. Thompson creates a unique balance in that he portrays a certain understanding for the man, but as well a frustration that is very much away from the men and rather a frustration with the authority above them. This distaste in Thompson is effectively portrayed by by Thompson because he really brings it with a force but never making it seem heavy handed either.

The indignation is present throughout but Thompson smartly keeps it underneath his words building to the point in which he comes out with it fully in his dramatic summation speech that tears into the established military for not viewing the atrocities as their own. The speech is a classic courtroom speech and Thompson delivers it with all of the conviction and passion that it deserves. He is unyielding in his resolve and Thompson brings the message that Thomas has been trying to get across the whole trail in remarkable fashion which is one of the best moments in this great film.

We don't learn a lot about Thomas in the film other than he is willing to fight for the men, and hates what is going on around him. Thompson even with his more limited role makes the most out of it through every one of scenes especially in the courtroom. He has that punch that all great performances of this kind due and he really tears into every scene leaving an impression. He is not only great in the courtroom but as well still creates complexities in his character particularly in the moral view held by Thomas as well as his interactions with the men. Thompson never leaves anything just black white in his performance, while still creating the moral high ground within the film.


Anonymous said...

Louis off Topic but what do you prefer ? Rocky , Network or Taxi Driver ?

Michael Patison said...

Or All the President's Men?

Lezlie said...

I'm not Louis, but for me it's Taxi Driver :)

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

Network for me, followed by the un-nominated Marathon Man.

Michael Patison said...

It was Network for the longest time, but All the President's Men finally overtook it

Michael Patison said...

Reading this now makes me want to rewatch it. I didn't notice Woodward as much as you did but that's because Thompson stole my attention away with his more showy performance.

Louis Morgan said...

Anonymous: All the President's Men. I like but don't love Taxi Driver, I think Network is masterful in areas (anything involving Peter Finch) but I think it is also is heavy handed in others (The Holden/Dunaway affair) and a bit too over the top with the stuff involving the communists and the Liberation army and I enjoy Rocky I just don't think it is the best.

Michael Patison said...

Louis, where does this rank now in terms of your favorite films of the year?

Louis Morgan said...

I would put it as my #2 right now, I'll see how it stands more firmly though when I re-watch the Elephant Man to review Hopkins.

Michael Patison said...

I haven't seen them, but Thompson's performances in the 1975 films Sunday Too Far Away and "Jock" Peterson also won acclaim and got him his first AFI Award if you wanted to try to hunt those down at some point and add him to the overall ranking for the year.

Michael Patison said...

Oops, "Jock" Petersen is better known simply as Petersen and it was evidently a 1974 release. Sunday Too Far Away is the better known of the two.