I’m at the point in my annual Toronto International Film Festival coverage where I’ve come across a performer of note with a few films playing the festival that I’ve been fortunate enough to catch. Usually, this spotlight I shine tends to focus on actresses, and this year’s no different.
Late on Day 2, I accepted an invitation to attend a screening of The Report, from writer-director Scott Z. Burns. Burns is having a festival himself, having also penned the Steven Soderbergh film The Laundromat. Speaking of working overtime, The Report has the highly-in-demand Adam Driver commanding the screen as the former intelligence officer-turned Senate investigator who worked on and drafted the Senate Intelligence Committee report on Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (or torture, to put it more bluntly). Driver’s other buzz worthy project, Marriage Story looms on the horizon.
But Burns and Driver are taking a backseat here to Annette Bening, who appears in The Report as Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the intelligence committee at the time the report was commissioned. For those who pay attention to the news, Feinstein is a familiar face and presence from the Sunday morning circuit. A fiery liberal debater with a willingness to compromise to get bills passed, Feinstein could have been a Presidential contender, given the right circumstances.
Bening doesn’t exactly favor Feinstein, but from the moment she first appears onscreen, she is without a doubt THE Dianne Feinstein. Going off knowledge of the time frame, the film could have easily never identified Bening and we would have known who she was playing. Her bearing and steely intelligence syncs up perfectly with Feinstein’s, plus there’s Bening’s outspokenness on politics that lends even greater credence to the views she’s espousing. This isn’t merely a recitation of lines of dogma; we feel Bening’s beliefs backing up those sentiments and it matters.
And yet, her version of Feinstein harbors an ever-present desire to not rock the boat too much – that is the role occupied by Driver’s Daniel Jones. He’s the fevered idealist exactingly researching and outlining a massive collection of unadulterated evil, done supposedly for the greater good, even though it is obvious that none of the people in charge of this scheme have any idea how to spell the word ‘good.’ His head is so in the weeds, Jones barely knows that there’s daylight above his head.
Feinstein is the one living in that other realm, far removed from Jones and the work, where, it seems, her efforts are to maintain the safety of the rules of law and the people. Despite enlisting and empowering Jones to do his job, Feinstein errs on the side of caution often, much to Jones’s consternation and Bening neatly makes that choice feel like less of a compromise and more of a duty.
As wonderful as she is in The Report, my follow-up encounter with Bening, in Hope Gap, is the real tour de force showcase. She plays a domineering wife and mother, a poet working on an anthology, and she dazzles us with a pitch-perfect accent to boot. Can Bening do no wrong?
She and the film wring every ounce of emotion from this story, about Grace, whose husband Edward (Bill Nighy) of nearly 30 years walks out on her without offering her the chance to save their marriage.
In other hands, this would have been Oscar bait, full of scenes to be included in Oscar telecast as the definition of the work. Instead Bening makes this feel routine. We’re not watching drama or a drama queen in full bloom. This is just who this woman is. Bening never lets her performance upstage the other actors she’s sharing the screen with or the character.
At first, we see Grace with Edward and immediately understand their dynamic. She is the center of the relationship, her head full of poems and a beautiful mind that stops on a dime to consider every element of her life. There is a self-importance to her opinions that feels like the kind of privilege generally assumed by men and it is fascinating to watch a woman utilize this power so flagrantly. Everything about her matters more and Edward has, apparently for years, quietly accepted this reality and his secondary place in it.
Their son Jamie (Josh O’Connor) is grown and living on his own. He visits infrequently, but we hear him speak of his childhood in a voiceover at the beginning about his mother and their relationship. He never thought much about how she felt about things and as the interplay sharpens throughout the story, we realize it is because he’s very much like his father, a bit removed from the center of life, wandering along the margins whenever Grace is present.
Writer-director William Nicholson (Academy Award-nominated screenwriter for Shadowlands and Gladiator) has crafted an exacting character study of Grace with plenty of room for both Edward and Jamie to delineate their orbits around her, and as I said from the start, Bening never rips the reins away from either Nighy or O’Connor. We’re watching people in an impossible situation, being impossibly human. And that, in the end, is what Bening always shows us – how to be human in every single moment she’s in front of the camera.