It is always uncomfortable to see recently passed faces emerge in new releases.
Most blockbuster movies come to the big screen with a bit of fuss – a bit of glitz and glamour and red carpet hype. However, some emerge with a little added poignancy, as a presence on the big screen is all too noticeably absent in pre-release interviews and premiere line-ups. The Drop, released this week in the UK, is one of these films. Hotly anticipated and boasting Tom Hardy at its helm, the movie nonetheless carries a weight unrelated to its crime drama content, in the shape of the late James Gandolfini.
As Gandolfini’s last screen appearance before his death of a heart attack in June 2013, the film has been loaded with a bittersweet element unforeseen at the time of casting. Being the only actor the screenwriter Dennis Lehane (author of Mystic River and Shutter Island, who stretched his short story Animal Rescue to create the full length feature) insisted on during the casting process, the Sopranos star’s performance will now take on an even greater significance, to critics and the general public. It has been widely reviewed as a beautiful, haunting depiction of a hard, yet vulnerable man. While his entire body of work now acts as a memorial to him, this film will always have the feeling of an elegy surrounding it. The Drop will immortalise Gandolfini.
This season seems to be full of dark and disquieting cinematic resurrections. A Most Wanted Man, released last month, and the Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I hit the audience harder than originally imagined, due to the appearance of Philip Seymour Hoffman in both. Although the latest instalment of the Hunger Games is surrounded by a dense cloud of hype and anticipation, Jennifer Lawrence’s powerhouse production carries an unshakable, uncomfortable undercurrent in the knowledge that at the time of filming Hoffman was only months away from his untimely death.
A Most Wanted Man has been hailed as a fitting tribute to the extraordinary actor, honouring his remarkable, but agonizing talent. Hoffman was known and respected for his ability to inhabit his roles and perfectly capture characters marked by melancholy and trauma. However, it is impossible to watch Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel without accompanying pangs of discomfort at the dishevelled, psychologically wounded man Hoffman depicts. With tragic hindsight the incredible performance hits too close to home.
Seeing a familiar face projected 10-feet high in glaring high resolution, while knowing that face is but a memory, is an uncanny and unnatural experience. An actor’s death often prompts a craving to return to their classic performances – to remember their talents, pay a strange kind of respect, or to escape the finality of their passing in film frames of their younger selves. However, posthumous films following closely on the tails of loss can sometimes feel too much like rubbing salt in our collective wounds. While retreating into Jumanji or Dead Poets Society can help ease the shock of Robin Williams’ suicide, the prospect of seeing Williams in Yuletide piece Merry Friggin Christmas strikes as unfortunate, even distasteful, rather than seasonally sentimental.
Film is a kind of immortality. It offers the chance to reawaken past stars, relive their classic moments and revel in their unique tics and gestures. It is this eternal quality that makes classic movies so appealing – the ability to jump back in time, without leaving the sofa. However, this is only a pleasurable retreat when there has been a little distance between the past and the present, when stars are truly understood and accepted as part of film history. The problem with final films is that, rather than being mentally linked with golden times past, they are inextricably linked to final days. In years to come, Williams, Hoffman and Gandolfini will become fond memories, absorbed, like James Dean or Steve McQueen, into cinema history – all of their films will act as tributes. However, at present, any premiere lacking their faces will come as a jolt and any viewing of new releases will be marked with a touch of almost unbearable tragedy.