Albert Finney has died. He was one of the last great mid-century character actors, nominated for five Oscars—he was wonderful almost every time he appeared on screen and he had the good luck of becoming famous in his native Britain and in America as well. He was an artist, so it is fitting to turn our mourning to admiration for his achievements. So here are six distinguished roles from the second half of his career—there’s no better way to remember the man than by watching him at his craft.
Let’s start with his last role, in Skyfall, the 2012 Bond movie. Finney played a gruff Scotsman who knows Bond’s secret origins and helps him face down a modern-weapons system attack with an old-fashioned attitude: a double-barreled shotgun. It was a rare action role for Finney and a good valedictory turn, since it played to nostalgia and a sense of the solidity of old things.
In 2006, Finney played John Newton in Amazing Grace, a fine movie about a very important political struggle, the abolition of the slave trade in the United Kingdom. Newton was from youth a sailor in the slave trade and although he eventually became very successful at it, he left it behind after an epiphany. His religious conversion led him ultimately to be ordained an Anglican clergyman. He wrote the hymn“Amazing Grace,” and died just after seeing the abolition fight won by William Wilberforce, the subject of the movie.
(Finney also had a small role in a Ridley Scott romance in 2006, A Good Year, in which Russell Crowe, an investment banker, leaves London to take up Finney’s vineyard in Provence. It is a neglected movie, but it’s fun and lovely and devoid of anything sordid. I recommend it!)
In 2003, Finney got his fifth and final Oscar nomination for his role in Tim Burton’s loveliest movie, Big Fish. Finney plays an old man who has to defend himself in front of his now-grown up son, played by Billy Crudup, for having told tall tales all his life and for being a rather neglectful father. The man’s self-defense turns out to be a remembrance of what was wonderful in early 20th century America, the adventures it made possible, and the innocence, too. It is a rare work of selective nostalgia and it is especially touching since the young version of Finney is played by an actor who resembles to his style very well, Ewan McGregor. In a sense, you get young and old Albert Finney in parallel, and you can see most clearly his defining positive quality, innocent or earnest exuberance.
Just before that, in 2002, Finney played Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm, an HBO production, taking its story and title from the first volume in Churchill’s grand history of World War II, dealing with his return to government after a long exile—and the beginning of the war. This has got to be our most sentimental cinematic Churchill, and an unusually good one. The movie is worth seeing not just because it’s sentimental—but because many true things are concealed in the sentimentality.
In 1996, the remarkable Polish director Agnieszka Holland directed Finney in an adaptation of Henry James’s wise novel Washington Square. It is an unjustly neglected story that concerns the crisis a young woman (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) faces when her father (Finney) disapproves of her lover (played by Ben Chaplin). Finney gives a particularly subtle characterization, playing a doctor who’s both an example of the Enlightenment and of upward mobility. The conflict between theory and respectability in this self-made man destroys his daughter’s chances for happiness—as all Henry James’ stories, it has no happy end to recommend it, only wit and a sophisticated attention to love. To round out the cast, there’s also Dame Maggie Smith playing the girl’s aunt, who encourages her rather reckless suit of love.
Finally, let’s go back to 1990 and my favorite among Finney’s many wonderful roles: Leo, the aristocratic gangster in the Coen Brothers one attempt to depict philosophy, Miller’s Crossing. It’s a gangster story set before WWII, in a typical small American town, during Prohibition, but it’s also the setting for a remarkable confrontation. Finney plays a gangster who has won almost everything by way of respectability and not a little glamour. He dresses like an aristocrat and lives in a palace, he rules from behind the scenes, and he shows a lot of nobility—especially contrasted with the porcine upstart who undertakes a sort of civil war against him.
Finney was born in 1936 and came to acting after the Golden-Age Hollywood stars had died or retired, but before the celebrities of our own time had arrived. He was part of the mid-century, when acting talent relied on characterization for its legitimacy. He was nominated for five Academy Awards, but the movies that earned him the nominations are nowhere near his best. The above suggestions, although they only cover the latter half of his career, offer entertainment with a touch of greatness, with stories—and performances—worth remembering.
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