A couple of years ago (WHERE DOES TIME GO?), I wrote a top-ten piece listing who I believed to be the best actors under 40. I stand by the list, but for one exclusion. Back then, a bunch of people yelled at me for not including James McAvoy, even though I mentioned him in the opening as a worthy candidate—he was a top twenty pick! It’s not like I graffitied “James McAvoy sux” on a railway car. I like the guy, I just didn’t think, at that time, that he was one of the absolute best actors under forty.
Well, you were right, and I was wrong.
McAvoy started growing on me when I caught some of his early television work in the UK (State of Play, Shameless), and then older movies like Starter for 10 and The Last Station, and then saw him earlier this year in Trance, in which he stole the show from very talented supporting players like Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson. I thought, McAvoy is better than I remember. I thought, Maybe I need to watch more of his stuff. So I went back. I watched things I hadn’t seen before, like The Conspirator (which is a boring fucking movie that I can’t recommend unless you are a die-hard McAvoy fan and a completist who must see everything he is in), and revisited the notable stuff like The Last King of Scotland and Atonement. And I reassessed my opinion. Because while McAvoy is an able ensemble player and does make a good straight man, he has a couple of talents I don’t see many others offering in the current market.
Point the first: If you want to show the destruction of innocence, hire James McAvoy.
It’s that baby face. He’s thirty-four now and while he is capable of a solid hang-dog expression, McAvoy’s bright blue eyes and boyish handsomeness make for a perfect, rosy-cheeked expression of youth and innocence. But the age shows, too, when he wants it to. McAvoy has an extraordinary physicality which combines with his baby face to make dissipation believable. Scotland, Atonement, The Conspirator, Trance and Welcome to the Punch all play on that ability, taking McAvoy’s characters from bright-eyed innocents to degraded, downtrodden, defeated individuals (Wanted plays the cycle in reverse).
I can only assume his take on Macbeth, which is said to be outstanding, used the same abilities, but since they refused to simulcast that production, I wouldn’t know for sure. (Sidebar: I know it’s not the same as being in the theater, but with the technology we have today, not sharing exceptional theatrical productions with a larger audience seems selfish. Why deprive people of good Shakespeare? Why deprive them of good theater?) The X-Men franchise got their perfect Charles Xavier in McAvoy, an actor capable of realistically portraying both the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, pre-injury Xavier and the post-injury, depressed and apathetic Xavier. Basically, if you need an actor to take that kind of emotional (and often physical) journey, McAvoy is your man.
Point the second: No one more believably expresses pain on film than James McAvoy.
And I mean no one. I kind of make fun of McAvoy for his often graphic depictions of physical pain, snotting and crying everywhere (Trance, in particular, is a snot-fest), but the result is that when McAvoy suffers, you wince along with him. Welcome to the Punch has one of the most graphic depictions of a gunshot wound I’ve seen and it’s not even that bloody. Ditto for Trance which features cringe-inducing torture sold more by McAvoy’s reaction shots than any blatant depiction of the act. And Punch takes it further—throughout the rest of the movie McAvoy moves with not only a convincing limp, but navigates the realities of his injury with practiced calm and efficiency—this guy’s life is forever different for having been shot, and he sells that difference in every frame.
Two years ago, I was wrong. James McAvoy is a stellar actor who deserves to be considered among the best of his generation. And his low-key approach to work and likeable, zero-maintenance celebrity persona ensure he’ll be around for a while. He isn’t flashy like Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender, but he gets the job done and he has a unique on-screen presence. Therefore, I’m officially removing James Franco from my list—if he isn’t going to take his acting career seriously, neither am I—and am adding McAvoy to my list of the best under 40. You were right. Sorry it took me so long to catch up.