Beneath the Suave Facade (2002)

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Beneath the Suave Facade (2002)

Post  Admin on Wed Nov 07, 2007 8:48 pm

Beneath the Suave Facade
There's more to Jeremy Northam than his matinee-idol mystique allows
By CELIA McGEE

It was the opposite of ending up on the cutting-room floor.
Director Michael Apted recalled showing the first version of "Enigma" to Robert Harris, the author of the best-selling novel on which the film was based. Harris told him, Apted said, that it was "two-thirds of a very good movie."

The first release from Mick Jagger and Lorne Michaels' Jagged Films, "Enigma" is set among the top-secret community of code-breakers working at the English estate Bletchley Park during World War II. Northam plays a sinister member of His Majesty's Secret Service known only by his last name, Wigram. "Very sort of public-school, old-boy-network, that," Northam said.

The supercilious and manipulative agent, who is charged with investigating possible security breaches at Bletchley Park, is "not the focus of the thing," Northam demurred. That honor was supposed to go to Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), a brilliant, sensitive young Cambridge mathematician recently returned to Bletchley after a nervous breakdown caused by an unhappy love affair.
But according to Apted, the "real spine and satisfaction of the movie is the combat the battle of wits between Tom Jericho and Wigram. Rather than ending with a submarine explosion" the finale that left Harris wanting more "we realized that we had to have a final scene that would be really between the two of them. [Screenwriter] Tom Stoppard then wrote it, but it had to happen also because Jeremy had done his part so brilliantly.

"Jeremy can do almost anything, including playing someone with a wonderful nice-nasty quality to him like Pierce Brosnan," the director went on. "Not to say that he should play James Bond, which has been booted about in the British press."

Why not say it? Those matinee-idol looks prompted Robert Altman to cast Northam as the real-life '30s screen heartthrob Ivor Novello in "Gosford Park." And he certainly doesn't lack sardonic intelligence, or a reputation for loving and leaving long-legged beauties clocking in at almost half his 40 years, or the warmth to suggest that he and an interviewer have their chat in Central Park instead of at his hotel, "since it's such a beautiful day."
Could it be he has one of those young ladies stowed in his suite upstairs?
"It's a lot of nonsense," he says. "The press has had me going out with people I'd barely met. Yet I lived with someone for nine years and [they] never mentioned her."

He prefers his facts accurate, he said, which is why he is fascinated by filmmaking, "which can make fiction from fact to tell you more about the truth."

Northam believes Harris used this ploy in "Enigma" to honor facts that had been hidden for too long.

"Because of the Official Secrets Act, Bletchley Park and the counterespionage work that was done there went unacknowledged until well into the '70s," he said. "And even then, when the first book about it came out by one of the people who had been there, the guy was ostracized. Some people felt very strongly that it should never be talked about, out of a sense of duty and honor. They felt bound by that."

But there was another reason. Bletchley Park "was a certain source of shame," he discovered, "because so many people were not honored." The movie, like Harris' novel, hopes to make up for that.

Partly at issue was England's entrenched, insidious class system. Unlike Northam's Wigram, most of those involved in Bletchley Park's main project to break the so-called "Enigma" code the Nazis used to communicate their battle plans were bright lights of the working class. Though Wigram faces his own "quandary about the political macro-situation, and is torn by his particular ethical problems and doubts," he remains, Northam said, a condescending snob.

But a beleaguered one. "What you see at Bletchley Park in the movie is absolutely linked to the kind of shifts that were going to take greater hold after the war," Northam said. "This may sound like blasphemy, given that there's so much worship of Churchill, yet it's often forgotten that the first election following the war was a Labor landslide."

Northam developed such perceptions at a young age. "Look, my own father was a kid from nowhere in southeast London who got to Cambridge on a scholarship," he said. "His eyes still light up when he talks about the war. He joined the RAF and was posted all over the world and had to wait six years to return to Cambridge."

His father went on to teach English literature at the university, but when Northam, the youngest of four, was 10, he took a professorship in drama at Bristol University. There, in the city that nurtured the Old Vic and a lively theater community, Northam set his sights on acting early on. He attended the Old Vic Theatre School, and in 1989, as an understudy to Daniel Day-Lewis' Hamlet at the National Theatre, stepped in when the star had a breakdown. In 1990, Northam won an Olivier Award as Outstanding Newcomer for his performance in "The Voysey Inheritance."

Perfectionist Streak
His film debut was as Hindley Earnshaw in the 1992 remake of "Wuthering Heights," but American audiences didn't really get a good look at his attractions until he was cast opposite Sandra Bullock in the 1995 thriller "The Net." The next year, he raised Jane Austen's sex appeal as Gwyneth Paltrow's guiding light in "Emma." His tender portrayal of Novello in "Gosford Park" was another coup.

"Jeremy does a tremendous amount of homework on a part," said Bob Balaban, Novello's American producer pal Morris Weissman in the film. "Yet the difference between Jeremy and his character is subtle, so it was absolutely fascinating to watch."

It's been an impressive career, "but for Jeremy," Apted said, "nothing is ever good enough. He's a tremendous worrier." One frustration is how often he's called on to make period films. "That's just the nature of the British film industry," Apted said. "It's not typecasting. Jeremy's able to take on roles that require a lot of movement, emotionally speaking. He's not made to be a straightforward, bland leading man."

That's not what Northam wants, either, he insists. His next movie is "Possession," adapted from A.S. Byatt's lush literary novel. He has just signed onto an American movie version of Dennis Potter's miniseries "The Singing Detective," with Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson. In Los Angeles last week, he said, "I was happy that I got to see a lot of great scripts." That doesn't mean that the next James Bond was among them.

"Personally, I don't want to be famous," he said. "I would hate to find myself in a place where all your life becomes public property."

He does want to be known as exacting. He realizes that this has not always endeared him to others. Take Kate Beckinsale's longtime beau, Michael Sheen, who punched Northam after the actor lashed out at Beckinsale for flubbing a line during filming of "The Golden Bowl."

"At times I do have a rather short fuse, and I find a movie quite a pressured situation," Northam said. "There are so many different perspectives going into it, and sometimes you also have to fight your corner."

But there was an additional strain on him, one he doesn't like to talk about. His mother, who died two years ago, was ill with cancer for a long time. Though Northam visited her daily during her lengthy stay in a London hospital, he didn't want anyone to know about that demand on his life.

'Broody' Type
"There was this terrible gap between what was going on with my mum and the performance I felt I had to keep up," he finally said. "I was frightened by the whole thing I was so full of feeling, yet I didn't want to show it." For a while, he went to therapy. "I had quite a knock-on from my mum's death," he said. "This is not an excuse, but I only recently realized how many years it was that I was trying to deal with her being sick."

Anyhow, he has always been "terribly broody," he said. "Work takes a lot of work, and life takes a lot of work."

He admitted this is one way of saying he has had a less-than-complete personal life. A certain loneliness has been "one of my concerns, particularly after my mum died." In his parents' marriage, "I witnessed this incredible demonstration of love, not just between two people, but throughout a family.
"I'm 40 now, and I don't have a girlfriend, and I have no base," he continued. "I really don't think [marriage] is something I've been running away from. I also wouldn't want to have a kid in the situation I'm in now. I don't think I would even want to bring up a kid in London they grow up too fast."

A better place might be the old seaside cottage Northam bought in Norfolk not long ago. He retreats there as much as possible, he said.
He went there to do his research for "Enigma," venturing out mostly to the local bookshop to buy studies on wartime England and on the history of code-breaking.

"At one point, I plopped down on the counter a stack of books about cryptology, and the owner said that I might like to meet an older gentleman who lived nearby who shared my 'hobby,'" he said. Northam surmised the man was a veteran of Bletchley Park and tried to contact him. "I was never able to meet him," he said. "I suspect it was still that very strong feeling that you should never talk about what went on. That sense of duty." So Northam looked into Wigram's soul, and found the same "a moral and political complexity."

Original Publication Date: 4/14/02

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