• Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

With Tom Wilkinson, Would You Get a Time Bomb or a Warm Hug?


Dec 31, 2023


Wilkinson (no relation, though publicists used to ask me), who died on Saturday at 75, is one of those actors everyone knows even if they can’t quite place him. He is the guy from “The Full Monty,” from “Batman Begins,” from “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.” He did everything from “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and channeled historical figures including Joseph P. Kennedy (in “The Kennedys”), Lyndon B. Johnson (in “Selma”), and Benjamin Franklin (in “John Adams”). He played a lot of priests and a lot of soldiers and a lot of men from history, but he never quite managed to be pigeonholed as anyone in particular.

Wilkinson worked a lot, with multiple film, TV and stage credits most years since the early 1980s, in part because he usually didn’t play the lead. Instead he was the man you brought in to fill a role with gravitas and a spark of peril, someone who would never simply say lines but make everything suddenly significant. What’s so fascinating about Wilkinson’s career, the kinds of characters he chose to portray, is their capacity for vulnerability and unpredictability. When he walked onscreen, you were not quite sure whether this guy was going to be trustworthy or explosive.

The instruments Wilkinson had to work with — his look, his stature, his voice — weren’t particularly remarkable on their own. His face, which began to verge on the cherubic as he aged, was that of an ordinary Englishman, someone you’d bump into in a pub. His voice wasn’t particularly rumbly or low-pitched, and while he stood much taller than many men he acted with, you’d never stare as he walked down the street. Wilkinson looked, in essence, like someone’s granddad, a man who would slip you a cough drop midmeeting and wink.

Yet his roles I remember most involved an element of danger so thoroughly fused into that exterior that I spent the whole movie wondering whether this guy was a warm hug or a time bomb. In Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Wilkinson has a minor role as the doctor overseeing the memory-erasing procedure that Jim Carrey’s lovelorn Joel desperately seeks. Kirsten Dunst plays Mary, the much-younger assistant who falls in love with the doctor. When he tries to explain that the two of them have a history already, there’s equal parts patheticness and pathos in his performance. Is he predator, prey, or helplessly uncertain how his own work really affects people? He’s not sure, and neither are we.

Or there’s the bereaved father in Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom,” a quiet, upstanding Maine father who is being eaten alive by his need to avenge the death of his son at the hands of his son’s girlfriend’s ex-husband. The final half-hour features Wilkinson at his most volatile, a deadpan expression on his face and a pistol in his hand. What’s in his heart is wholly inscrutable not just to the man at the other end of the gun, but to the audience, too. He could go off at any minute — or not at all.


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