Tuesday, December 30, 2008

For Your Consideration: VERA FARMIGA

Just in time for the Oscar ballots (they were mailed to Academy members the day after Christmas), a look at one of Hollywood's more underappreciated performers and her work in 2008 that will go unrewarded but shouldn't go unnoticed.

Vera Farmiga is the new Tilda Swinton – that unconventionally beautiful, undeniably intelligent, scene-stealing actress with a roll-off-the-tongue name whom film buffs have adored for years but who's just out of reach of the mainstream's embrace. Swinton's Oscar win last year officially bought her a spot on the A-list (just ask her two-time 2008 co-star, Brad Pitt). Farmiga is still climbing the alphabet but, with her dependably spot-on performances and steadily burgeoning fan base, one can only assume that the Swinton-sized summit isn't far off.

Farmiga gave two notable performances in 2008. One was in Rod Lurie's journalistic thriller, “Nothing but the Truth,” which I've admittedly not yet seen amidst the current, year-end cinematic surge. Yet, I've little doubt about her much buzzed-about brilliance in the film – she plays a CIA agent who's outed by Kate Beckinsale's galvanized D.C. reporter – because she's so often so good. Take her other '08 supporting turn, as the morally conflicted mother hen of a small Nazi nest in Mark Herman's “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.”

“Pajamas” (or “Pyjamas,” for the purists), a manipulative adaptation of John Boyne's disturbing bestseller, dug its own grave of modest critical and commercial success with a particularly misleading marketing campaign (a family flick? I don't think so). Had the movie – which isn't so much about two unlikely friends but about family dynamics and human frailty – been better received, it's safe to say that Farmiga would be duking it out with Taraji P. Henson and company for a seat alongside Penelope Cruz on Oscar's Supporting Actress short list. Haunting, relatable, and seemingly effortless, her work transcends the film's mixed messages and weak packaging.

As the wife of a high-ranking Naxi officer (David Thewlis) and the mother – which is the character's only credited identification – of an adventurous nine-year-old named Bruno (ocean-eyed Asa Butterfield) who bonds with the titular Holocaust hostage (snaggle-toothed Laszlo Aron), she's the fulcrum of a see-saw between evil and innocence. Like Carmela Soprano transplanted into WWII Germany, she enjoys pretty benefits funded by ugly actions, and expresses true horror and disgust when the wool is completely removed from her eyes and the means to her privileged end hit home. Much has been made of “Pajamas” breaking new ground by offering a new view of Nazi Germany – one through the eyes of the enemy's youth. But the more interesting and novel perspective is that of Farmiga's character, which cracks open the oft-uncharted concept that many Nazi wives were, in their own tragic and somewhat self-enflicted way, yet another group that became a casualty of the war.

The way Farmiga approaches the role is what makes it most remarkable. She assumes the position of both the audience member and the compassionate bystander of the times – appalled by what she sees but helpless against it. In many scenes, she silently conveys every nuance of her character's tornado of inner turmoil using only truth-telling glances. When her teenage daughter who's consumed by Fatherland groupthink begins papering her bedroom with Nazi propaganda, what can she do? Tell her to remove it? Praise her obedience? When the old Jewish servant who brings in the groceries tends to her son's injury in her absence, what can she do? Thank him? Send him away for touching her child? Have him killed? Her emotional struggle is written all over her face and the anticipation of her reaction(s) – or lack thereof – is riveting. (What's inside eventually works its way out, and she spends a chunk of the film in a state of deep, unkempt, baggy-eyed depression.)

It's hardly a spoiler to say that, in the end, Farmiga's character pays the ultimate price for sitting by silently while atrocities unfold. Her parting shot is an anything-but-silent, desperate wail that's obligatory but, for authenticity purposes, trumps each of Angelina Jolie's flat-feeling fits in “Changeling.” (For that matter, Farmiga's harrowing lead work in 2005's “Down to the Bone” trumps everything in Jolie's filmography.) Righteous as “Pajamas”'s semi-shocking, fully unsettling ending may be, it employs the same sympathy-for-the-devil – or, at least, the devil's company – angle that's used in another drama from Winter '08's Nazi grab bag. “The Reader,” a movie that's as guilty of Hallmark-Hall-of-Fame-sentimentality as this one is of improper demographics, stars Kate Winslet as a former death camp guard who has an “educational” affair with a young boy before being handed a life sentence for war crimes. The boy grows up to become Ralph Fiennes who, in an attempt to yank out our heartstrings, keeps sending books-on-tape to his aged, imprisoned lover and opens a literacy fund in her name. Winslet's performance – the only thing in “The Reader” worth watching – is terribly fascinating but hardly sympathetic. The fate of her character is conventional and obvious and even an actor with her gifts can only do so much to make us care.

The point is, both Jolie and Winslet will almost certainly be invited to Oscar's big show, and Farmiga will not. Yet, of these three women, only Farmiga struck a strong emotional chord with this viewer – and has been for some time now. She may have caught the eye of Marty Scorsese – how delicious was she in “The Departed?” – but she still hasn't earned the Academy's attention. Maybe next year, Vera. In the meantime, perhaps you should phone Tilda Swinton's agent...

*This article was submitted to StinkyLulu's Supporting Actress Blog-A-Thon.

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