Actor Stephen Graham has came as been proving himself a fine character actor over the last few years playing supporting roles as mostly reckless and fearsome gangster types. Most notably in films like Snatch (Guy Ritchie), Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese) and Public Enemies (Michael Mann). Arguably his juiciest role has been 'Combo' in Shane Meadows masterpiece This Is England.
When This Is England was released a few years ago, the acclaim and spotlight were focused squarely and intently on director/writer Shane Meadows and young lead actor Thomas Turgoose. And quite rightly so, Meadows had been making the most interesting and exciting British films for the last ten years and was finally getting sufficient acclaim and recognition. And Turgoose indeed played the role of Shaun a young boy left fatherless due to Falklands war who looks to a gang of skinheads for acceptance and comfort with such honesty and conviction that you could see on screen that there was something more to this story than just a role for an actor (Turgoose) and just a film for a writer/director (Meadows). This Is England was a personal story for both this guys. For Meadows it was an expression of his youth seen through the culture and time he grew up with delivering that expression acutely through the medium he had learned to master. For Turgoose his performance was that of a young man who doesn't yet understand the method and practice of acting (he wasn't in any way an actor before This Is England) and more of a cathartic outpouring of his own young experiences and clear forward projection of this young man's potential as an actor.
But anyway, despite all this, I still think the best performance from This Is England was Graham's multi layered portrayal of a confused, disturbed, dangerous young man at specific time in his life and at a significant time of England's recent history.
The fear, comedy, intensity and dramatic reality that Graham bought to the role accompany Meadow's story, script and filmic style perfectly as did Paddy Considine's iconic performance in Dead Man's Shoe's.
The strength of Graham's performance was reinforced by his recent outing in Meadows TV spin-off This Is England '86 which aired earlier this month. I didn't like it...straight up. It had heart, but was a massive case of style of substance. Although the characters were still engaging and enjoyable to watch, the mini series failed to have any real gravitas. Perhaps this was because the show focused on characters that we're devised as supporting roles for a story that Shane Meadows himself described as personal story about a young boy coming to terms with the death of his father (referring to This Is England). Therefore these characters 'Lol', 'Woody', 'Milky', 'Gadget' etc whilst being enjoyable and funny had no real grounding or hinge for the viewer base themselves on whilst watching. However. In the final episode 'Combo' reappears and his short but devastatingly intense performance really salvaged the whole project.
When he finds 'Lol' distraught after the vicious and atrocious attack on her by her father, 'Combo's' explanation, justification and consolation to her is a remarkable and emotionally shattering piece of dramatic acting. For sure credit is also due to Meadows for his superb writing and deliberately restrained directing style, and Vicky McClure and Johnny Harris ('Lol' and 'Mick' (the father)) certainly hold their own in the scene, but this was the one of only two scenes in the whole series that I felt that had any real depth and weight to it. The other is when 'Combo' (Graham again) returns his mother's flat to find a neighbour there and that his mother had died the night before. 'Combo's' reaction is so minimal yet the viewer gets a full impression of the emotional toil that runs through the character. This combined with the more visceral, intense performance from the scene with 'Lol' shows Stephen Graham's acting range as much more than a simplistic 'thug' type as he is normally cast as.
But perhaps, that is why his performances as these types of character are so engaging and intense to watch. Because he can take a simplistic 'thug' type character and make that character a multi layered individual, creating a tension within the viewer (as in the viewer sees a typical character in a different/new light as well as keeping with the pre-conceived ideas of what the generic stereotypical character is) as to make for truly engaging experience.
But from somewhere up north in the 80's to Atlantic City in the 20's. Stephen Graham is now playing a major role as none other than Al Capone in the latest remarkable series from HBO, Boardwalk Empire. Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter (The Sopranos writer) depiction of organised crime during the prohibition era. Stephen Graham's portrayal as a young Al Capone have so far (only four episodes in to date) shown all the hallmarks of his remarkable work with Shane Meadows and also suggests comparrison to the type of performance Scorsese has got out Joe Pesci time and again.
I'm sure in the coming episodes he will have his own "funny how?" speech!
And he can do east coast gangster accent much better than Ray Winstone...(no disrespect Ray!)
Stephen Graham is in loads of up coming films including a Nicholas Cage movie, the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie....http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0334318/
This Is England '86 is on 4od