By Phil Brown, Contributor
James McAvoy is probably my favourite actor, and is undoubtedly what you might call a movie star. He’s appeared in 18 of them since leaving the small screen behind in 2005, and nearly all of them have been successes, either critically, commercially, or both.
He’s an excellent actor, a true chameleon whose natural Scottish accent and playful personality are often completely obscured by the characters he portrays on screen, and whose sheer range of work sets him apart from actors of his generation. While he may not be the best-known, he deserves to be, and if you’ll embark with me on this 13-hour slice of his extraordinary career, I think you’ll quickly begin to see why.
The Breakout Role: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)
This film holds a very special place in my heart. It was the very first movie I saw in an actual cinema, and the whole experience was absolutely magical for me. I had loved the series of books since I was even younger, and watching the characters become larger-than-life in front of me was incredible.
The movie itself is great, it’s a lovely fantasy tale. It may not have too much to say, after all, it is a children’s movie, but it says it all very well. I consider this film and it’s sequel, Prince Caspian, to contain some of the very best production design that I have ever seen.
This is where it all began for me, and perhaps as well for James McAvoy, whose Tumnus character in this 300-million grossing movie was his biggest film role to date, after an early career that heavily relied on TV. McAvoy turned a role in Tumnus, the faun (that’s a half-goat, half-human mythical creature), that could have easily been silly, creepy, or boring, into something genuinely touching, serving as the movie’s emotional core and motivation, and all under copious amounts of prosthetic makeup.
Running Time: 143 minutes
Best Battle Scene: When McAvoy’s Tumnus, wearing only a scarf, starts screaming and attacking other mythical beasts who are wielding swords and armour.
The Drama-comedy: Starter For Ten (2006)
What can I say? If there’s any genre or subgenre that can be said to be done to death, it might be the comedy-drama about coming of age. But McAvoy, with fellow rising stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall, puts in admirable work in this one.
Shedding the prosthetic goat legs of Narnia, the now 27-year-old manages to convincingly play a dweeby college freshman, inexperienced at everything and trying to balance old relationships and dreams, with new. It’s textbook stuff, but you can’t help but get taken up in the fun of it all as McAvoy’s Brian falls in love with two girls, competes with the quiz team on national television, or learns how to headbutt properly.
It may be a little too sweet, and the soundtrack is almost literally made up completely of The Smiths, but the actors all perform admirably, and the 92 minutes, the shortest on this list, fly by quickly. McAvoy’s performance in particular puts similar efforts such as Tobey Maguire’s in Spider-Man to absolute shame, portraying a character with a surprising amount of depth and vibrancy in such a shallow mold of awkward nerdiness.
Running Time: 92 minutes
Best Plaza Demonstration Attended: A spirited Anti-Pornography rally.
The Award Winning Literature Adaptation: Atonement (2007)
Atonement is truly one of my favorite films, period. It is shot at times with a luscious, lingering beauty, at times with a sense of numb cynicism. The story is engrossing, and the emotional payoff is immense. It feels complete, the pacing and cohesion of the film are remarkable for one with so many diverging themes and characters.
These merits of the movie can mostly be credited to the director of the film, Joe Wright, or to the writer behind the original novel, Ian McEwan. But a huge part of the success of the film is due to James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, the strength of their performances, and the great chemistry between them.
McAvoy makes another seismic shift from his Starter for 10 character, dropping the glasses and awkward fumbling, and turning in a portrayal of a character that, along with the rest of the film, lingers in the mind long after the screen goes dark. Robbie Turner has already come of age, and as the film starts in the lull between wars in England, he is on the brink of a life full of sweet hope and dreams.
Atonement chronicles the steady destruction of those hopes and dreams: it’s heartbreaking, fascinating, and powerful. Equally great are the performances by Keira Knightley and Saoirse Ronan, forming a trio of tragic characters whose lives react against each other onscreen spectacularly. I’ll never recover from this film, and I never want to.
Running Time: 123 minutes
Best Weapon of Mass Destruction: Typewriter
The Mindless Action Flick: Wanted (2008)
I’ll be upfront about this: Wanted is at times the most stupid movie I have ever seen. It would also be a sacrilegious desecration of the original graphic novel, if said novel wasn’t already so pointedly sacrilegious itself. Regardless, it’s another key part of McAvoy’s rising star, the action role, the training montage, the car chases, the guns: every other movie star gets to do this, and McAvoy gets to do it in high style in Wanted.
The action sequences in the movie are remarkably entertaining, in fact, even as they become more and more ridiculous as the film rolls. Cars perform feats of gymnastics that I’m pretty sure humans can’t do, and along with physics, time and space themselves become the slaves of McAvoy’s super-powered assassin, Wesley.
McAvoy again anchors the movie, outshining a supporting cast such as Angelina Jolie (given nothing), Morgan Freeman (the definition of phoned-in performance), and … the rapper Common? It’s McAvoy alone who bothers to try to ground this outrageous movie in reality, and although he definitely does not succeed in what would be impossible for any human being, the film is much better off for it.
As a result, we get an outrageous action movie that is actually surprisingly enjoyable to watch, even if you wish the people in the film would stop trying to explain the plot, because it’s really, really dumb.
Running Time: 110 minutes
Best Means of Shutting Up Chris Pratt: Keyboard to the face
The Superhero: X-Men: First Class (2011), and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Now we reach one of the final stops on the path to a modern movie star: the superhero role. Everyone has one, even Chris Pratt has recovered from the keyboard in Wanted and is leading the Guardians of the Galaxy. And James McAvoy was given one in 2011’s X-Men: First Class, taking on the mantle of not only a very important character in comic history, Professor X, but that of one of our most beloved recent actors, Patrick Stewart.
First Class itself was an odd movie, it was a reboot-but-not-quite, a spinoff, but with the same characters: you got the feeling the studio was hedging its bets by freshening up the cast, but at the same time holding out for the originals. Either way, First Class didn’t turn out to be much of a film in its own right. The elements of CW-type teen drama didn’t exactly make for a compelling watch, and the villains were pretty boring.
The one absolutely great thing that First Class did was in casting: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence are simply great actors, and more importantly for an ensemble film, had great chemistry together. McAvoy and Fassbender, in particular, are the perfect pairing as super-powered frenemies Professor X and Magneto. Their performances not only made a rather humdrum movie watchable, they spawned thousands of pages of terrible slash fanfiction, and cemented both actor’s places as movie stars in their own right.
Thankfully for all of us, Bryan Singer swooped in and crafted a proper X-Men movie in Days of Future Past, which so neatly ties the two timelines together, it’s like magic. Or, you know, mutation. Days of Future Past is not only a smart and engaging comic book movie, it showcases the exhilarating power of the X-Men in a way the first never did.
And in a way no other superhero movie has done, with the exception of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Days of Future Past gets genuinely dark at times, and questions the nature of the heroes themselves, lays bare the humanity underneath the facade.
This is what McAvoy excels at, and he nails his role in this film. Professor X is once again the personal connection between the audience and the characters printed on film, and McAvoy does a great job in bridging the gap. McAvoy’s X is undoubtedly one of the deeper superhero portrayals out there, especially in a market dominated by Captain America, Thor, a pretty but meaningless Superman, and a disappointingly vacuous Spider-Man.
Running Times: 132 and 131 minutes
Best Use of PG-13’s one F-word: It’s a tie between Hugh Jackman in the first and your James McAvoy in the second.
The Crazy Guy Role: Filth (2013)
The final film in my list is the last film of McAvoy’s that I’ve seen, and it’s probably his finest individual performance to date. But there’s nothing truly “fine” about this chips-n-cocaine fueled fever dream, Filth takes a perverse delight in being, well, filthy, at every opportunity.
Based on the Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting) novel of the same name, Filth follows the misadventures of an extremely vile and corrupt Edinburghian cop named Bruce. James put on a lot of weight for the role, undergoing a scientific diet of “eating and drinking too much shit” (in his own words), and plays Bruce underneath a layer of uncomfortably real fat.
The film begins with Bruce shown as being supremely self-confident in his lurid scheming, and follows him as he sets out to destroy all of his frail relationships in the hopes of getting promoted. While this part of the film is perversely entertaining to a certain degree, it wisely begins to shift tone before the that entertainment turns to discomfort.
It’s at this point in the movie that McAvoy’s genius becomes apparent, and glimpses of a terrified, desperate man shine through the grimy surface of the debauched, criminal cop. McAvoy actually manages to (somewhat) humanize a completely inhuman character, and it’s done from within the character, stemming from his performance and not external influences on the story.
As the story gets more and more insane, McAvoy shines brighter and brighter. Filth is not a perfect film, but it’s the best chance McAvoy has been given to truly show what he can do, and he knocks it out of the park.
Most Useful Gift: Football Scarf
If you don’t watch all of these movies in a 13-hour binge, that’s okay. If you don’t watch any of these movies, that’s not okay, as you’re depriving yourself of the filmography of one of the modern age’s best mainstream actors. Incidentally, you’ve also missed Benedict Cumberbatch playing a prissy quiz show team captain in Starter for Ten, which is not okay in the least.
If you’re a fan of the rapper Common, well, you’ve missed a good five minutes of him handling weapons and muttering vaguely about what could be anything but passes as the plot of Wanted. Basically, if you like movies, you’ve missed out 6 good ones. Don’t.