A note to the Academy: Remember Romola in 2008

 
 

The British movie Atonement
debuts in the U.S. in December. In the U.K.,
it has already been making waves, with many predicting that it could
provide Keira Knightley with her second Best Actress Oscar nomination
(her first was for Pride and Prejudice in 2006). Certainly, there
are several factors that are likely to endear the movie to Academy voters: It’s an adaptation of a prestigious novel, it’s set during World
War II, and it features a tragic romance (between Knightley and James
McAvoy
, star of Becoming Jane). It’s also very finely directed,
and it deserves to be well received. But if they do start handing out
Oscar nods for the performances, I hope there’ll be one in there for

Romola Garai.

Garai is a young British actress
who has yet to achieve the breakout success of Knightley, although she’s
been on my radar for about as long. While Keira was appearing in
Bend It Like Beckham
in 2002, Romola was starring in the BBC’s
adaptation of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, as Gwendolen Harleth,
the beautiful, spoiled, willful heroine.

Her classic looks were combined with
a natural acting talent, and it wasn’t long before she graduated to
the big screen — showing her range by starring as the imaginative, bookish
Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle (2003).

Whether scribbling frantically in
her journal, plunging into an icy-cold lake for a midnight swim, or
tragically apostrophizing her sister Rose, played by Rose Byrne (“No towel in the world is worth marrying a bearded man you hate!”),
Cassandra was one of recent cinema’s most likeable, as well as most
intelligent, heroines. The fresh, uninhibited quality of Garai’s performance,
as well as her English Rose beauty, soon had critics comparing her to
a young Kate Winslet.

Two Hollywood productions, Dirty
Dancing 2: Havana Nights
, and the Reese Witherspoon version
of Vanity Fair, followed, although they both — and particularly
Dirty Dancing
— received lackluster reviews. That didn’t stop

Woody Allen from casting Garai in his 2006 film Scoop, as
the British best friend of Scarlett Johansson’s Brooklyn-born
Sondra Pransky.

When I first saw the trailer for
that film, I wondered if Garai and Johansson within the same screen
might be a bit more blonde bombshell than I could handle. Particularly
given that the trailer features Garai telling Johansson: “You know,
you’re a very attractive, sexy girl. You’d better watch out.”

I like to think the two actresses
agree with me that Allen would have done a much better job casting Johansson
opposite Garai as her love interest, rather than opposite Hugh Jackman.

<

“You see Scarlett, what Woody doesn’t
realize

is that this would be a much better film if we were a couple.”



“You’re so right, Romola. I’ve
never thought of it that way before.”

In
Atonement
, Romola stars as the 18-year-old Briony Tallis, sister of Knightley’s
Cecilia, whom Briony hopelessly alienated five years ago by accusing
her boyfriend (McAvoy) of a crime. While Knightley has the more showy
role, as the glamorous love interest, Garai is quietly excellent as
Briony, a prickly and complicated girl who will go on to become a famous
writer.

In an interview given at the
film’s U.K. premiere, director Joe Wright recalled preparing a key scene
with the two actresses, whose characters are meeting for the first time
after five years.

“I asked Romola what her character was thinking,
and she gave me a very long, thought-out, intellectual response about
the position of women in the period, and so on. And then I asked Keira
what her character was thinking [about Romola’s character], and she
said ‘She’s grown tits!’”

Here’s hoping the Academy will
realize that both Knightley and Garai’s approaches — different as
they apparently are — have their strong points.

 
 

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