I met him and just thought, ‚Oh well god, what I lovely young man,‘ and then I started acting with him and I thought, ‚Oh god, no! I’m sorry! I’m working with a future legend! WHOOPS!‘
That’s how Anne Hathaway, co-star of James McAvoy’s in Becoming Jane described her first encounters with James in a behind-the-scenes interview – and these words just fit perfectly to how my infatuation with James progressed.
The first time I took notice of this Scottish actor was – fittingly – when watching The Last King of Scotland. Even though Forest Whitaker is the overpowering force in this movie (winning the Oscar for a mind-blowing performance), I did appreciate James’s work and his accent. From then on I knew his name and face – but it was more like „what a lovely young man“ than „future legend“. Between then and today I’ve watched quite a number of movies starring him but the future-legend feeling really just hit me quite recently with two performances: his tour de force in Filth and his (second) portrayal of the young Charles Xavier (Professor X) in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Since the the last X-Men-instalment I’ve become quite obsessed with James McAvoy and have tried to catch up on his earlier work. So I’ve seen him play historical figures (in Becoming Jane, The Conspirator, The Last Station), leading men in romantic movies/comedies (Penelope, Starter for 10), a young man suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy (Inside I’m Dancing), a sous chef (Macbeth), a detective/action hero (Welcome to the Punch) and the boyfriend of a lead character in a comedy series (Shameless). The quality of the productions may vary but James’s performances never disappoint.
Here’s a list of the movies I’ve seen (I’ve tried to put them in the chronological order of my having watched them):
I can’t say that James stood out in this film version of the story by C.S. Lewis, as opposed to, for instance Tilda Swinton, who was spectacular as the White Witch.
As I said earlier, the performance that really blows your mind in this movie is Forest Whitaker’s. Still, I do remember that I did find myself mildly intrigued by this young Scot. Ever since the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I had fallen in love with the Scottish accent (as Pippin was played by Scottish Billy Boyd), so that was one reason why I liked the character James played. Now, when I rewatched the movie some weeks ago, I could see much more clearly the glimpses of his genius. Plus, I’ve noticed a pattern for some of his roles: quite often he has played characters who are slightly naïve in the beginning and often learn the hard way that life isn’t as easy as it seems (see also: Wanted, Atonement, The Conspirator, The Last Station, even – to some extent – X-Men). You could not say he’s typecast in these roles, however. But James can portray this transformation beautifully. You can truly see Dr. Garrigan’s horror when he realizes that people have died because of his – seemingly – innocent actions.
I don’t really recall what I felt when watching this movie when it first came out. I think at that time I still moderately liked Angelina Jolie, and I thought the action sequences were fantastic. I did think James was OK, but I still did not really fall for him. Having watched it again recently – despite my increasing dislike of Angelina Jolie – I tremendously enjoyed watching James in such a physically demanding role, and it surely was a stepping stone for further Hollywood engagements. The movie itself, however, has some serious plot holes and inconsistencies (his father is played by the German actor Thomas Kretschmann, who is only 17 years his senior – not very convincing).
Gnomeo & Juliet, 2011 (Gnomeo’s voice)
Oh well, not much to say about this one…
Atonement, 2007 (Robbie Turner)
Even though I already liked this movie the first time I watched it (on DVD, shortly after I had read the book), it really hit home when I saw it a second time a few weeks ago. James can showcase both his talents as a romantic lead (the scenes with Keira Knightley are so electric I almost had to hold my breath; the library scene being one of the hottest love scenes I’ve ever seen) and a dramatic actor. Of course, it helps that this is one of the best book adaptations ever, with one of the most awe-inspiring war scenes (five minutes of Dunkirk without any cut!) and one of the saddest endings. The movie was nominated for and won several awards: among others, James was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama at the Golden Globes, he and Keira Knightley won Best Seduction (what a great category!) handed out by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and James won Best Actor at the Empire Awards in the UK.
X-Men: First Class, 2011 (Charles Xavier)
Interestingly, even though I hadn’t really fallen „in love“ with James McAvoy yet, I remember that I was thrilled when I heard who was going to play the young alter egos of Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). I thought they were the perfect choices and I really enjoyed the movie – and the chemistry between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr (I’m not a slasher, but I do see why there’s so much fan fiction and fan art about this slash-pairing!). I must admit that this is not only due to James’s appearance, I also have a thing for Michael Fassbender. The two are great together – so this was the first movie starring James McAvoy I also had to own on DVD after having seen it in the movie theater.
Trance, 2013 (Simon)
This movie by Danny Boyle gives James the chance to display a wide range of different emotions – from being very cool to being increasingly confused to fearing for his life. A great vehicle to show what he can do.
Filth, 2013 (Bruce Robertson)
Now, THIS is James’s jaw-dropping, mind-boggling performance that at times had me shake my head in disbelief while sitting in the movie theatre. The way he switches from being a total d*ck to being completely vulnerable within seconds is the stuff legends are made of. Mark Kermode from The Guardian said James McAvoy was „electrifying as Bruce Robertson“ and talked about his“powerhouse performance“. I couldn’t agree more.
Neverwhere, 2013 (radio play) (Richard Mayhew)
Well, I’m actually not quite sure whether I downloaded this radio play before or after having seen Filth. Plus, I must admit, I originally was drawn to this more because a fellow blogger had this on her list of audio appearances of Benedict Cumberbatch, who does have a rather small role as the Angel Islington in that play. James, however, is the protagonist Richard Mayhew (a Scot :)) and it was great to let him talk me to sleep… 😉
James’s deeply emotional portrayal of the broken-hearted Charles Xavier (in the 70s with long hair) broke my heart. The movie had me repeatedly in tears – sometimes just because I couldn’t believe my eyes – and if it hadn’t been a late-night screening, I would have watched it a second time right after the curtains were drawn. What really almost shocked me was the fact that I caught myself thinking ,“Wow, his Xavier is even more interesting than Patrick Stewart’s!“ Patrick Stewart is a legend, in my view; being not only a notable Shakespearean actor, but also the iconic Star Trek Captain Picard. Yet, while Stewart’s Professor X is wise and well-adjusted, as well as powerful in a restrained way, McAvoy shows how a younger Xavier struggles to find his way, you see him less restrained but giving in to his feelings. Patrick’s Professor X seems almost a bit like a saint, a superior being, whereas James’s Charles Xavier seems more human, somebody who has to deal with loss and failure – like all of us. Of course, all this was surely intended in the screenplay, but the way James delivers it is simply awe-inspiring.
Catching up with his earlier work (seen AFTER X-Men: Days of Future Past):
Becoming Jane, 2007 (Tom Lefroy)
Funny, charming, tragic. Great chemistry between Tom (James) and Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway)!
The Conspirator, 2010 (Frederick Aiken)
Interesting but not deeply captivating piece of history about the trial against the mother of a young man who had conspired in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Solid performances by James, who plays her reluctant defense lawyer, and Robin Wright, who has the title role.
The Last Station, 2009 (Valentin)
Naïve again! Wants to abstain from sex, as the Tolstoyans believed one should. But the chemistry – again – between Valentin (James) and Masha (Kerry Condon) is too strong to resist. James shows very well how Valentin is torn between his admiration for and loyalty to Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), to Tolstoy’s wife (Helen Mirren), and his love for Masha. Side note: James’s wife Anne-Marie Duff plays Tolstoy’s daughter Sasha.
Shameless (Series 1), 2004 (Steve McBride)
Truthfully, I haven’t yet seen the whole first series, because the DVD I ordered is faulty and I haven’t yet contacted Amazon about it. But what I’ve seen so far once again proves that James knows how to create relationships between characters that you absolutely believe. Well, in this case here, the chemistry between him and Anne-Marie Duff was so good that they became a married couple in real life, too. The series itself is full of crazy characters amongst whom Steve (James) is one of the sanest ones.
Starter for 10, 2006 (Brian Jackson)
A real pity that this romantic comedy (starring in the female roles Alice Eve and the wonderful Rebecca Hall) didn’t really succeed at the box office. James is funny, and has a perfect partner to play with/against: Benedict Cumberbatch! The second movie with James in one of the lead roles and Benedict in a supporting role (the other one was Atonement, in which Benedict plays the most revolting character). This shows that James McAvoy had the bigger roles earlier, even though Benedict is slightly older. This doesn’t change the fact that today Benedict Cumberbatch seems to be the bigger „star“ (his IMDb-rating: #33 vs. James being only listed among the top 500, which I seriously do not understand), despite James’s iconic role in X-Men. (Of course, I love both actors!)
Macbeth, BBC Mini-Series „ShakespeaRE-Told‟ 2005 (Joe Macbeth)
A modern Macbeth: Joe is the sous chef at a three-Michelin-star restaurant. It’s the binmen – instead of the three witches – who prophesy that he will become the owner of the restaurant… Well, even though Macbeth is the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays, 90 minutes is, indeed, a bit too short to have all the murders and madness unravel. The film is OK, but James cannot show his true potential as a Shakespeare actor. I wish I had seen him on stage instead: he played Macbeth in an all-Scottish cast at the Trafalgar Studios in spring 2013 and was even nominated for an Olivier Award. Too bad I discovered my love for him too late…
Inside I’m Dancing, 2004 (Rory O’Shea)
James plays Rory, who suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy (which is fatal) but who manages to change the life of Michael (great perfomance by Steven Robertson), who has cerebral palsy and leads a boring life in a home for the disabled. I’m glad my love for James has brought this little gem of a film to my attention. It’s basically a buddy movie – and James convincingly portrays this unconventional character that brightens up his friend’s life, but whose own life is not meant to last. Funny and moving!
Welcome to the Punch, 2013 (Max Lewinsky)
Another role in an action movie – but since this film is utterly forgettable, foreseeable, and thus boring, James could have easily been replaced by a number of other actors. Easily James’s worst movie. He’s still giving a good performance (so is his „enemy“ Mark Strong), which is strongest when he is hurting, but the screenplay is simply too dull.
Penelope, 2006 (Max/Johnny)
(Interestingly, the excerpt is slightly different from the version I’ve seen on DVD.)
Call me sappy: I LOVED this fairy tale with a happy ending and the obvious (but true) message that you have to accept and love yourself. James is simply adorable in this movie! Like Penelope (Christina Ricci) I want to ask him to marry me. Period.
Perfect ending, actually, to my „slightly“ long „ode“ to future legend James McAvoy. Just a very few last thoughts on what else I found out about him in YouTube videos etc.:
- He’s quite a good soccer player; has already taken part twice in Soccer Aid (England vs. The Rest of the World)
- He’s not very vain: There is an interview on one of the DVDs, in which you can hear a tiny little burp that escaped James while he was speaking, for which he apologizes, but, apparently, it didn’t worry him that this would be forever on DVD. Somehow I found this quite endearing.
- He is funny! Watch his appearances at talk shows, for instance with his Days of Future Past-pals at the Graham Norton Show or at fellow Scot Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show – they’re hilarious!
(Don’t be confused if there’s Jon Cryer first – he created that idea of the „Vortex of Scottish Charm‟.)