WCW: A Vindication of Carey Mulligan

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Back in 2017, Trystan wrote a Snark Week post bemoaning British actress Carey Mulligan, which garnered her lots of flack. Here’s the deal: everyone has individual opinions and reactions. Trystan finds her boring AF, I actually think she’s one of the strongest actors of her generation. But during Snark Week, we — and you! — are all allowed our own individual opinions. I personally can’t stand Gerard Depardieu and Geoffrey Rush, to the point where I have a visceral reaction when I see them on screen, and that’s completely at odds with most every other person on the planet. And so maybe, on an everyday basis, I have to temper that reaction when writing reviews so that my review isn’t just “UGH.” But during Snark Week, there’s no fairness, no sacred cows, and the gloves come off. You want to rant in the comments about how you can’t stand Meryl Streep? GO FOR IT, we will support you!

But, for proof that we don’t all agree here at Frock Flicks headquarters, and to be somewhat fair and balanced, is my personal explanation of why I love Carey Mulligan!

Part of the problem is that I think some of Mulligan’s strongest performances are either in modern-set films, or films that Trystan hasn’t seen. That being said, I haven’t seen some of the films that Trystan has loathed her in (particularly, Far From the Madding Crowd — nor do I care a whit about source author Thomas Hardy), so both of us probably have biased views based on our own experiences! This doesn’t mean that Mulligan is one of those actors who just don’t work well in period film (see: Hilary Swank). I think it’s probably a mix of casting and screenplay and direction and costume design.

Here’s a run-down of the films in which I’ve really enjoyed Mulligan’s performances.

 

Northanger Abbey (2007)

Okay, so I did say in my short review that one aspect of Isabella Thorpe’s character (played by Mulligan) is an off note: “Isabella Thorpe REALLY flirting, in a very sexual way, with some men at the pump rooms… had me raising my eyebrows.” It’s true, Mulligan as Thorpe basically telegraphs “Want a hand job?” non-verbally, and as our guest poster Yosa pointed out in her review of Sanditon, “There are no brothels in Jane Austen. Or hand jobs or incest,” a comment that had me howling with laughter for days. Nonetheless, DESPITE that element, I actually quite liked Mulligan’s performance in this! You can see just why naive Catherine is drawn in by this sophisticated new friend, and you can see Isabella’s machinations at work as she tries to arrange advantageous marriages for herself and her brother.

Northanger Abbey (2007)

Isabella (Mulligan, left) takes innocent Cathy (Felicity Jones) under her wing.

2007 Northanger Abbey

She plays Catherine like a fiddle, and only reveals her true nature once she realizes there’s nothing to be gained here.

Carey Mulligan, Northanger Abbey (2007)

Okay, that’s a shitty bonnet, but that’s on the costume designer!

 

An Education (2009)

This was actually the first film in which I really sat up and noticed Carey Mulligan. It’s an interesting take on the usual “young girl is bored, hooks up with an older man” scenario, in that Mulligan’s character Jenny actually gets to realize that maybe she’s made a bad bargain for herself. This is far more true to real life than most films ever show. As I wrote in my short review, “Carey Mulligan was really mesmerizing in the main role.” She gives a subtle performance but shows real depth, which is exactly what’s called for here.

2009 An Education

Mulligan is sheltered and DYING to break free from her staid, suburban life.

2009 An Education

Hooking up with an older guy seems glamorous!

2009 An Education

But the reality is that this kind of relationship rarely works out in the woman’s favor.

 

Never Let Me Go (2010)

Here’s where I head away from period films, so apologies for going off of the Frock Flicks mission! If you want to despair about humanity and truly sob, run don’t walk to see this British dystopian film about a love triangle … with some seriously dark depths. The first part of the film is set in the 1970s in an English boarding school, as Mulligan’s character comes of age.

Spoiler alert! It turns out that Mulligan and the rest of her schoolmates are clones who have been created simply for the purpose of harvesting organs and other body parts for their counterparts. They’re allowed to live their lives until they’re needed, and the pain of watching these people come to understand who they are and why they exist is truly gut-wrenching. This isn’t Star Trek-y scifi, it’s a heartbreaking story of just how awful humanity can be. /end spoiler alert

2010 Never Let Me Go

Okay, so yes, Keira Knightley is in this, but she’s actually quite good!

2010 Never Let Me Go

Very naturalistic costumes as befits the story.

2010 Never Let Me Go

Blame the 1980s for that hair.

 

Mudbound (2017)

So normally we mock the whole “mud and pigs” thing in period film, and yes, Trystan’s reaction to this film’s title (“the name says it all. SIGN ME UP. /sarcasm”) resonates — I had a whole rant about this last snark week! But this film is about two families farming in the Mississippi delta in the 1940s, and it’s about civil rights and racism, and so the title is appropriate (it’s also based on a novel of the same name). Given my interest in this topic, the film had been on my list, so I made a point of watching it before writing this post.

Okay, so the film isn’t entirely successful because it takes what probably worked great in a novel — telling a story from several perspectives — and tried to apply that to film. There just isn’t enough time in a feature film to do this, and so each character gets shortchanged as a result.

Nonetheless, Mulligan gives a strong performance as a young woman who goes from a middle-class life to living in a shack and scraping a life out of the dirt. It’s heartbreaking to watch her try to accept her husband’s bad choices and make a life for herself and her children in the face of poverty. And the film does a great job demonstrating how the dynamics of racism played out in the aftermath of World War II, when so many African Americans had risked their lives for their country and enjoyed much more equality, only to return to a country that was stuck in an antiquated way of thinking.

2017 Mudbound

Mulligan gives yet another strong yet thoughtful performance, starting out as a middle-class young woman…

2017 Mudbound

Who ends up rueing the day, but has to keep on keeping on.

2017 Mudbound

Her character is able to recognize the humanity in her African American neighbors, while still having the blinders of white privilege.

 

Promising Young Woman (2020)

Another modern film, but a standout performance by Mulligan! She plays a woman who is clearly broken emotionally and has an obsession with getting revenge on men who prey on incapacitated women. While the film takes her responses to an almost absurd level, it’s a really important look at how rape culture affects women. And Mulligan gives one of the better performances of depression that I’ve seen in a long while.

2020 Promising Young Woman

Shit’s bleak.

2020 Promising Young Woman

It’s all she can do to get through the day.

2020 Promising Young Woman

There are moments of hope!

2020 Promising Young Woman

But at the end of the day, revenge is sweet. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

 

The Dig (2021)

And finally, if you’re in any way a history geek (and if not, why are you reading this blog??), you need to watch The Dig, which tells the story of the discovery of the 6th- or 7th-century graves buried at Sutton Hoo. Mulligan plays real-life landowner Edith Pretty, and yes, she’s younger than the real Pretty. However, as Sarah wrote in her review,

“As for casting Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty, the owner of the land on which the great burial ship was situated, well, it turned out to be a non-issue once the film got rolling. Mulligan actually looked aged up far more than her actual 35 years, so at least she didn’t look egregiously young and Hollywood beautiful. Again, I’m not fussed about it, because honestly, Mulligan was excellent in the role.”

And, I agree! There’s no jazz-handing here; Mulligan plays an ill woman without theatrics or melodrama, and she’s a nice, quiet counterpart to the salt-of-the-earth excavator played by Ralph Fiennes.

2021 The Dig

Mulligan can get cleaned up.

2021 The Dig

But she mostly wears practical, well-worn clothing, which suits her character as a struggling single mother.

2021 The Dig

Both Mulligan and Fiennes give very realistic performances.

 

 

So, what’s your take on Carey Mulligan? Yea or nay?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

25 Responses

  1. Trystan L. Bass

    Well Kendra didn’t address my biggest complaints about Carey Mulligan — The Great Gatsby, Madding Crowd, & Suffragette — plus she ignored smaller roles like P&P&Pigs & Bleak House, then she reviewed modern movies & those which came out after I wrote my Snark Week post. So my assessment still stands, hah!

    Reply
    • Loren

      With you 💯- she’s a total drip. I was astounded they cast such a milquetoast as Bathsheba!!

      Reply
    • Kendra

      Both opinions stand! I did mean to mention Suffragette — I thought her performance was fine, it’s the movie itself that’s ho-hum. And yes, the smaller roles either don’t resonate (P&P&PIgs) or I haven’t seen them (Bleak House).

      Reply
    • LadySlippers

      The Great Gatsby sucks as a book and the movie isn’t much better (although this movie was definitely filmed in Technicolor LOL). This book/movie is trying to place a positive spin on men stalking women — sorry — I’ll take a hard pass on anything normalising toxic male behaviour.

      Suffragette was a meh movie. How’s that Mulligan’s fault?

      I haven’t seen the other movies (that I can recall).

      Reply
      • Trystan L. Bass

        Daisy is a far more nuanced character than Mulligan bothered to play her as she sleep-walked thru that version of Gatsby. Suffragette was meh because of Mulligan’s lackluster performance — the plot was solid, the other actors were trying, but she had the pivotal role & didn’t show any motivation or fire in it. I have yet to see her give an engaging, entertaining, believable performance in a historical role!

        Reply
  2. yosa

    Ha ha ha ha ha, y’all are great! I am absolutely going to roast/recap the next season of Sanditon and I am touched that you liked my review.

    I thought Far from the Madding Crowd was a nice movie and she was pretty good- but I think I must go read the book to feel the true outrage. I think she does such a great job being understated characters- but that there was a luminosity missing in Gatsby.

    Reply
    • Janet

      Looking forward to your roasting/recapping posts on prolonging our suffinging ‘Sanditon’. Your posts saved me having the watch it on BBC.

      I didn’t think there was really so much wrong with ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ either. Even having read all of Hardy’s novels. Maybe I have to re-read this particular novel…?! And see what the F.F. Ladies saw, and what I missed.

      Really liked Baz Lurhmann’s take (I’m a die-hard fan of his work) on ‘The Great Gatsby’…but agree that Carey Mulligan missed something of what Mia Farrow brought to the role of Daisy Buchanan.

      Loved Carey’s performance in ‘Suffragettes’ (2015) and her portrayal of Edith Pretty in ‘The Dig’.
      Plus I hope to, one day, see Paul Dano’s Directorial debut ‘Wildlife’ (2018), set in 1950s rural Montana, with Carey Mulligan & Jake Gyllenhaal.

      Reply
  3. Anna Lincoln-Barnes

    I highly recommend seeing Carey Mulligan onstage, if you ever get the chance! Many of the actor-quirks to which Trystan objects read COMPLETELY differently to a live audience. I saw her opposite Bill Nighy in “Skylight” several years ago and she was breathtaking.

    Reply
  4. Frances Germeshausen

    I loved The Dig, and because someone in here pointed out she was wearing Pools of Light earrings (first picture above), I now have a pair PLUS a necklace. (Small one, if you’ve looked online to buy one – woof!). 20s Completist, must be complete. So there.

    Reply
  5. LadySlippers

    I actually like Carey Mulligan and enjoy her performances. I think she gives thoughtful, in-depth, and nuanced portrayals of her characters. But maybe I am biased because of Promising Young Woman — that whole movie is simply amazing.

    Reply
  6. M.Wise

    She was fantastic in Dr. Who as Sally Sparrow. Blink is all time great episode.

    Reply
    • Mary

      She was iconic in Dr Who so I love her. Blink was incredible. I think she infuses her acting with beautiful sensitivity, femininity and grace, and I don’t see any other actors doing the same. It’s all showy stuff like Margot Robbie (who I love) or masculine plodding like Keira Knightley (who I also love.) Carey is special and when she has a good script she shines.

      Reply
  7. Saraquill

    I refuse to watch “Never Let Me Go” as I’ve already read the book. I rather doubt the movie will compare well.

    Reply
  8. Nzie

    I haven’t seen many of these but I have generally liked Carey Mulligan. The first time I took note of her was in Blink, an episode of Doctor Who which hinged entirely on her as a guest star, and put its actual regular stars in the background the whole time. I also did like Bleak House, although she’s supporting to Anna Maxwell Martin’s main character. I don’t blame CM for P&P&P haha. I’d definitely like to see the Sutton Hoo movie. :-)

    Reply
  9. Lily Lotus Rose

    I think she’s a good actress. Never Let Me Go is one of the MOST DEPRESSING movies I’ve ever seen in my life.

    Reply
  10. Melponeme_k

    I’m always amazed that this actor has a career. I’m even more amazed when they cast this person as a character of unparalleled beauty. Obviously the casting agents needed glasses.

    Reply
  11. SarahV

    I first took note of her in the astounding PBS/BBC(?) miniseries The Amazing Mrs. Pritchart in which a whip smart, middleclass everywoman decides to stand for parliament and ends up winning the whole enchilada and decides to enact very, very progressive policies. Carey Mulligan was her sullen, rebellious vindictive daughter.

    (this also has the terrifying Janet McTeer as a brilliant, ruthless Tory MP who was brought in to bring. her. down.)

    Reply
  12. Lily

    I re-read Gatsby not long before seeing the Baz Luhrmann version, and I thought Mulligan did a nice job of conveying the nuance that the Daisy of Gatsby’s imagination doesn’t really exist; the real Daisy is kinda meh and weak and … crushed under the weight of Gatsby’s fantasy (and stalking).

    YMMV obviously, but I do think it was a deliberate choice.

    Reply
  13. Katie O.

    I liked her in Northanger Abbey and The Dig (and Pride and Prejudice, but I actually prefer the 2005 to the 95, which I know is a minority opinion around here lol.

    Technically, Promising Young Woman was a good film, but it was so damn bleak that I hated it. Maybe it’s unreasonable! But I hate that movies about women seeking revenge always seem to involve the woman dying or being raped or otherwise getting her comeuppance. It seems disproportionate to the number of movies about men seeking revenge that end with him riding off in a blaze of glory.

    Reply
    • SarahV

      “Technically, Promising Young Woman was a good film, but it was so damn bleak that I hated it.”

      This. So many times this.

      Reply
    • Sea Xavier

      I prefer the 2005 version as well. I thought she did a good job in both Pride and prejudice and Northanger Abbey.

      Reply
  14. mjsamuelson

    I really like Carey Mulligan, and am more likely to tune in if she’s in a film (I totally watched The Dig for her alone, and I personally like her as Bathsheba in Far From the Madding Crowd). In P&P&Pigs, she’s miscast as Kitty for sure, not reading at all younger than Keira Knightley or a simpering subservient sister to Lydia.

    Anyway, enjoyed your take!

    Reply

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