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New York Times Feature: Six Breakthrough Performances

New York Times Feature: Six Breakthrough Performances

Ms. Henna, a television and film star in South Africa, makes her American debut with this role, and it's a challenge. Her character is a bright, affectionate wife and mother, and she has the strength to withstand torture. At the same time, there's a fault line in her psyche that makes her a danger to her husband once he's on the run.

Scene Stealers: Six Breakthrough Performances


Bonnie Henna

IN Philip Noyce’s political thriller “Catch a Fire” (Oct. 27), Bonnie Henna plays opposite Derek Luke as Precious, the first wife of Patrick Chamusso, the South African oil refinery worker who, in the late 70’s, became an African National Congress guerrilla fighter after the couple were wrongly arrested and tortured by the apartheid government. Ms. Henna, a television and film star in South Africa, makes her American debut with this role, and it’s a challenge. Her character is a bright, affectionate wife and mother, and she has the strength to withstand torture. At the same time, there’s a fault line in her psyche that makes her a danger to her husband once he’s on the run.

Because of an old indiscretion on her husband’s part, Precious is bedeviled by sexual jealousy. We discover this when, at a festive gathering, she gives him a sharp little smack on the head simply for dancing with a pretty woman. Ms. Henna makes something memorably sly and disturbing of this moment: as she sways past the couple, her gesture is so quick and playful it looks like a joke, until we see the blow register in her husband’s eyes.

Ms. Henna’s Precious is uncommonly appealing. She has a grace and freshness reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn. She isn’t just pretty, she’s exquisite — except when her lips thin with anger and her eyes narrow and go cruel. Ms. Henna conveys the destructive power of her character’s jealousy by letting us see the way it robs her not just of her beauty but also her very character, not to mention her peace of mind. It’s the alarming speed and intensity of the transformation that make her inability to trust seem not like a personality flaw but like the affliction it is.

Rinko Kikuchi

THE Japanese newcomer Rinko Kikuchi set off a media frenzy at the Cannes Film Festival this year. She’s one of the most memorable characters in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s star-studded “Babel” (Oct. 27), which features interlinking stories of miscommunication and the misery it causes in Japan, Morocco, Mexico and the United States. Ms. Kikuchi, who is 25 but looks much younger, plays Chieko, the rebellious deaf-mute daughter of a wealthy Tokyo businessman, and her use of signing adds another language to a movie that abounds in them.

Chieko’s mother has died violently, and for reasons that aren’t immediately clear Chieko holds her father responsible. Having cut herself off from comfort at home, she craves it elsewhere. Introduced to a cute boy who’s also hearing impaired, she’s beside herself with excitement. But she also takes her panties off at the local hangout, then flips up her short skirt to flash the teenage boys at a nearby table. She looks gleeful as she does this, but Ms. Kikuchi gives Chieko’s boldness a frantic edge.

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Necessarily, Ms. Kikuchi’s performance is a feat of expressive physicality in a role that includes a far more difficult scene involving full nudity. Chieko is a girl on the brink, a bundle of functional incoherence. Off-screen, Ms. Kikuchi is a slender reed of a woman with exquisite features of porcelain delicacy. On camera, her changeability is astonishing. She gives Chieko at least three faces — one grim and devoid of youthfulness in which her features look broad and heavy-boned; another illuminated into prettiness by a quick, captivating smile; and a third of naked, desperate beauty, carved by a need so raw it hurts to look at her.

Chieko is a teenage girl, and teenagers can be mercurial, so it’s awhile before you realize that what Ms. Kikuchi is showing isn’t simply youth but trauma: psychologically, Chieko is shattered. Her sexual impudence isn’t resilience, it’s part of the dance she’s doing on the edge of a cliff.

Brian Geraghty and Shia LaBeouf

PART gravediggers, part Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the presidential campaign volunteers played by Brian Geraghty and Shia LaBeouf in “Bobby” (Nov. 17) add an element of Shakespearean low jinks to Emilio Estevez’s intense ensemble drama about Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. The movie’s themes emerge through guests and workers at the Ambassador Hotel on the day of the senator’s victory in the California Democratic primary, a day that ended with a bullet from Sirhan Sirhan’s gun.

With their dark suits, plastered-down hair and unfailing self-seriousness, Mr. Geraghty and Mr. LaBeouf certainly look like junior policy wonks. But when they ditch their campaign duties on Election Day as too mundane, it’s clear that politics doesn’t come into it; they’re just young nerds in search of a thrill. Pompous young nerds at that — these buddies don’t chat, they put their heads together and confer, and their indignation at having to suffer boredom is as heartfelt as it is risible.

Both actors have done notable work before, Mr. LaBeouf as the beleaguered hero of “Holes” and Mr. Geraghty as the frightened, fish-out-of-water marine in “Jarhead.” Here, they suggest the fragile egos behind the know-it-all facade. Their pomposity has a tentative edge, as if they were practicing for the real thing, and their eyes look slightly anxious even when they’re sharing a joke.

But that’s before Ashton Kutcher’s hippie dope dealer feeds them sugar cubes laced with LSD. In no time, they shed their pretensions along with their clothes and become childlike. Eventually, the clothes go back on, but their owners remain wide-eyed and wonderstruck as they wander the hotel.

They’re hallucinating, but instead of acting goofy or demented, Mr. Geraghty and Mr. LaBeouf do something more accurate and seem hardly to act at all. It’s just that everything about them is slightly, comically off. In the end, these young men will return to reality with a terrible crash. Until then, they’re invaluable reminders that some human folly is a form of innocence.

Forest Whitaker

WITH 44 movies on his résumé, Forest Whitaker should be a known quantity — an immensely skillful actor (and sometime director) who has distinguished himself in roles like the troubled jazz genius Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood’s 1988 “Bird” and the preternaturally serene hit man in Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 pop culture fiesta, “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.” Mr. Whitaker doesn’t lack for work: he has several small indies on his dance card and a regular role in “The Shield” on FX. But it says something about Hollywood’s blinkers that you have to reach back several years for movies that take the measure of Mr. Whitaker’s talent. Perhaps his latest turn will make the industry notice. In “The Last King of Scotland” (Sept. 27), he gives the performance of his life as the infamously bloody 1970’s Ugandan strongman Idi Amin.

Based on the 1999 novel by Giles Foden and directed by Kevin Macdonald, the movie addresses the way absolute power corrupts just about everyone it touches, including Amin but also a young Scot (James McAvoy) who becomes his personal physician and confidant. Mr. McAvoy is himself a talent to watch, and he holds his own opposite Mr. Whitaker. But he does so partly because Mr. Whitaker is too serious to chew the scenery or hog the show. As we watch his soldier-liberator gradually turn paranoid dictator, Mr. Whitaker’s beautifully disciplined performance never exceeds the stringent bonds of realism, so its impact is enormous.

As he charms and, increasingly, terrifies, he makes palpable the connection between the thrill of charisma and the danger of its corollary, a craving for control. With his big body and sleepy eyes, a certain gentleness has always been Mr. Whitaker’s hallmark. But here at last, and at no cost to his subtlety as an actor, he gets to pull out all the stops. Never has a monster been more magnetic.

Bobby Cannavale

BOBBY Cannavale made his mark three years ago in “The Station Agent” as a sweet, lonely lunk who was stranded behind his ailing father’s hot dog stand in the New Jersey boondocks. Earthy and gentle, he was utterly convincing as the kind of man who might make a woman very happy, if he could ever catch her eye in the first place.

With “Fast Food Nation” (Nov. 17), it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy for Mr. Cannavale. Much of Richard Linklater’s dramatization of the best-selling exposé by Eric Schlosser is set in a deceptively pristine-looking meat-packing plant in the Colorado Rockies where, behind gleaming white walls, all manner of dirty deeds take place.

Mr. Cannavale’s are among the dirtiest. He plays Mike, the plant’s sexually ravenous young line boss. Because the female workers are illegal immigrants from Mexico, he thinks they’re his for the taking. Walking the production line to survey his reluctant harem, searching out the newbies, sampling the wares like a snacker at a smorgasbord, Mr. Cannavale has the strut of an overprivileged frat boy.

But beneath the cockiness, he layers in something mean. He loves his power in all its forms, and when he loudly berates a worker for the inexpert way she’s cut a piece of meat, he all but chest-bumps the woman to drive home her humiliation, his voice harsh with contempt.

It’s hard not to hate this sexual predator, and Mr. Cannavale gives him touches of humor and charm that make him infuriatingly real. His anxiety is palpable when he impulsively confides to a pretty new arrival — she has approached him in the parking lot for a job — that the parent company may close the plant. Suddenly he’s not a bully but a hard-working little guy being kicked to the curb.

Mr. Cannavale makes this so convincing that it’s not only the woman who’s disarmed; the audience is, too, thinking it has glimpsed his humanity. Then he grabs her from behind, shoves her against his car and shows her who’s boss.

THE NEW SEASON: FILM Karen Durbin is the film critic for Elle magazine.