Dec 24, 2011

Jessica Chastain: The New Julianne Moore?

This week, I finally got around to watching The Help. All the talk about the film taking "the populist spot on the best picture list" reminded me too much of films I don't like so I didn't give it a shot when it was released. Having seen the film now, I'm ready to say I'd made a mistake. Yes, its politics is, to put it mildly, simplified and reductive; the dialogue is at times really corny and the look of the film is too glossy and always ersatz. If you go in thinking this is gonna be a high-minded piece on racial issues, you'll be disappointed but I assume not many people go in thinking that. It's really heartwarming and funny, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me tear up a couple of times. But the real story of the film is the cast. 

Top to bottom: The Tree of Life, The Help, Take Shelter
That SAG nomination for best ensemble is so well-deserved. All these actresses are brilliant individually and have chemistry in their scenes together. Viola Davis has perfected the art of finding the right balance between strength and vulnerability. Octavia Spencer is fiery but subtle at all the right moments. Bryce Dallas Howard understands the caricature that her character is but brings a human, though unsympathetic, side to her. Then there's Jessica Chastain. Her character is so broadly written that her presence could have become an irritating joke, yet Chastain's sassy, naive and kind-hearted Celia is the ensemble's greatest player. She's so at ease with the accent and those high heels, one wonders if she is really the same actress who played the mother in The Tree of Life

In my review of that film I wrote "Jessica Chastain completely immerses herself in Mrs. O’Brien and ... avoids the pitfalls of the “supportive mother” role while capturing the angelic beauty of her character." The range she's covered between these two performances is unbelievable. Both characters manage to transcend the screen but one does it with an ethereal other-worldly presence and the other with open-hearted emotional expressivity. And then there's her outstanding performance in Take Shelter, where she escapes archetypal conventions of the wife's role yet again and builds a character entirely her own. 

This has been a fantastic year for an actress who was virtually unknown twelve months ago. At 30, she's a little older than Hollywood's typical new 'it' girls, which reminds me of another redhead beauty who started her career a little late, only to become one of cinema's legendary actresses. Julianne Moore was 33 when Short Cuts came out but she followed it immediately with Vanya on the 42nd Street and Safe. Moore is one of my favourite thespians of all time and not that many people, before or after her, have been as good, but for some reason I feel like there's more in common between the two than red hair and a late start. 

Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights
I'm curious to see what Chastain has up her sleeve next but it looks like we're in for a fruitful and exciting career. Her next release will be Coriolanus (February in Toronto) and she's also working on Wettest Country with John Hilcoat (The Road) and another film with Terrence Malick.


  1. So glad to see people agreeing with me that Chastain is The Help's brightest light. Not so much because they agree with me, but because as you say she does such specific lovely things with a role that really is quite broad. It's not the strongest film she is in this year, or the most daring character but it is here most lovely performance I think.

    Every time I remember her saying "This is so much FUN!" I smile. How could I not?

  2. Agreed. I think she's given three of the year's top ten best supporting performances and I'd rank them as such:
    1. The Help
    2. Take Shelter
    3. Tree of Life