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