Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Alternate Best Actor 1964: Tom Courtenay in King & Country

Tom Courtenay did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a BAFTA and winning the Volpi Cup, for portraying Pvt. Arthur Hamp in King & Country.

King & Country is effective although terribly bleak film, even for a film of its type, about court marshal of a man accused of desertion.

Tom Courtenay was quite the daring actor in his run in the 60's going from his great performance as a foolish immature aimless young man in Billy Liar to his performance here as World War I soldier whose life is on the line after he has been caught trying to escape the war. Unlike Dirk Bogarde who has a character arc, Courtenay's performance is technically all in his creation of the state of Private Hamp. Private Hamp is not a man who can go through any more changes at this point because he has already been through too many things during the war by this point in his life time. The lack of an arc does nothing to deter the power of Courtenay's performance.

Courtenay's performance is a rather difficult one to watch because of his uncompromising portrayal of Private Hamp's condition. Private Hamp is a very shell shocked and traumatized man who has not forgotten what he saw on the battlefield and what happened to him on there. Courtenay shows this experience as something right down into the depth of Hamp's bones, in a remarkably nontheatrical fashion. Courtenay's performance is that of a broken man in every sense of the word. Courtenay's physical portrayal is subtle and extremely effective. Courtenay plays Hamp's state as something he has lived with for quite some time, time that has nothing to cure of him this. He does not shake madly, but rather there is a constant discomfort of man who seems uncomfortable in his own skin.

Courtenay is astonishing in all of his scenes having a magnetic presence despite the meek nature of his role. Courtenay's voice is always weak and slight giving the sense that Hamp seems partially disconnected from everything around him. There is numbness that Courtenay conveys in his performance and we are able to see how Hamp is entirely telling the truth in his story of desertion. Courtenay is fascinating by having a great emotional intensity in his portrayal of Hamp while keeping the emotional detachment. This never is a contradiction because Courtenay makes it all a part of what Hamp has become through his service to King & Country. In his stare into the void of nothingness Courtenay, it is not simply nothing, but rather the nothing to contain his pain.

Along with the detachment there is another seemingly contradictory dynamic that Courtenay delivers flawlessly which is Hamp's personality. Courtenay makes Hamp a young man, and no not just because Courtenay is rather young here, in the nature he gives to Hamp. Hamp is not world weary in the way you'd expect a veteran to be, but this is instead a youthful experience which Courtenay portrays. There is a dulled enthusiasm in Courtenay rather than the exasperation one might expect. Courtenay shows that the war has not really sucked the life out of Hamp exactly, rather what has been sucked out is his soul. Courtenay gives us a man who once was young not long ago, but the nature of the war has made an unnatural man.

Hamp is interrogated about why he deserted and Courtenay is outstanding in his delivery of the scene. Courtenay makes the tale a painfully vivid one, as he explains basically what left Hamp the way he is. Courtenay is very haunting as he does not waver once as Hamp describes his time in the trenches and almost drowning in the mud. Courtenay never falters into theatrics, or even a slight hint of well acting in his depiction of what traumatized Hamp in this way. The audience is never shown of what Hamp speaks of, but the film does not have to because Courtenay allows us to see it through the horror that is behind his eyes as he explains his experience to the man who will defend him Captain Hargreaves (Bogarde).

Tom Courtenay gives a harrowing turn here and is convincing here as man who has faced too much in his life as he was as Billy Liar who was a man who faced far too little. Even though Hamp is technically a constant Courtenay is compelling every single moment that he is onscreen. This is an incredible example of an actor taking hold of his character, who must be a constant by nature, and overcoming even the slight risk of repetition bringing life to every detail of the man's current state. There is not a single moment where we do not feel the struggle of his character in Courtenay's truly heartbreaking portrait of a soldier who managed to survive his time on the battlefield in body but not in mind.

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