It's a strange kind of paradox, really, that Dame Judi's best work in years- in fact, I can't really remember a better performance from her- comes in a part that was so perfect in the book but becomes so messed up on film. Dench works wonders, yes, else she wouldn't be here, but the film doesn't do her any favours- where Barbara Covett in novel form was a rounded, complex, dangerous but pitiful human being, Barbara Covett on film is little more than a villanous, nasty lesbian predator. Dench mines like a trooper to inject some of the book-Barbara's sympathetic qualities into her character- the look in the mirror, the hidden looks of weariness (see my graphic)- but the film around her wants you to hate her, despise her, look at her in disgust. Thanks to Judi, though, you don't- your looks of disgust are instead directed to the film itself.
No one really seems to know what INLAND EMPIRE is all about, even David Lynch himself, and no one really needs to- but what they do need is an emotional hook, because, like it or lump it, you're not really going to be interested in a film if it doesn't affect you in some way, and for all its unweildy imagery and strange metaphors and circular, ovaline or star-shaped (I don't know!) narrative threads, this is what INLAND EMPIRE does. Dern is given the enormous task of making some kind of coherence of about five different characters, none of whom are given much more than a name, and Dern must not only carve out distinct personalities but thread them all together, for naturally these women are all extensions of each other, in whatever abstract Lynchian way. Dern is both a cypher and an abstraction, a way in to the film and a barrier to understanding it. But, most importantly, she is transfixing, committed, and fiercely emotional.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu may be about, well, Mr. Lazarescu, but quite unexpectedly, both to her and the audience, Gheorghiu's ambulance worker gradually, naturally becomes the driving force of this movie, and not just in the sense that she pushes Mr. Lazarescu around on a gurney. Gheorghiu craftily portrays Mioara's transition from disinterested, weary worker to concerned, involved companion, slowly adjusting her body language to show increased concern for the man she is ferrying around, and, ever so slowly, becoming the heroine of the film. Without Mioara, Mr. Lazarescu would be dead even sooner than he ends up being; with Gheorghiu, Mioara would have been a pale, dull shadow.
2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose saw newcomer Jennifer Carpenter give a fiercely committed performance in much the same role as Huller has here; however, where Carpenter's sidelined character was little more than a devil-riddled woman with extraordinary limb suppleness, Huller has the harder task of creating an actual person, since Michaela, though she does eventually let rip with virulent screams, is simply a young woman, a religious, willowy figure, a person who, for whatever reason, seems to be a vessel for the devil. Michaela is not, unlike Carpenter's character, centered in a philosophical court debate, but one between reality and psychology- Michaela does not know why these things are happening to her, but she must struggle valiantly on with the rest of her life while they exist.
The best for last, perhaps. I know I haven't been picking first, second or third prizes in these awards, but Julia Jentsch's performance has been on this list for so long, so unchallenged and so supreme, that it feels only fair to call her out as the best. Taking the titular role as Sophie Scholl, persecuted member of the Anti-Nazi White Rose movement, Jentsch does not have confusing arcs to ace like Laura Dern, or reflective moments in a mirror like Judi Dench, but she effortlessly creates a full, human and beautiful figure anyway, perfectly attuned to the film's low-key tone- this is not a film that is pulling any large punches, simply a picture of a historical moment, a tribute, almost, to this valiant young woman, and Jentsch makes her not a saint, but a woman- too committed, perhaps, to her ideals, too protective for her own good, too stubborn and proud- but in recognising these weaknesses of character, Jentsch also reveals what made Sophie Scholl the heroine she was.
Apologies to: Actress was not so crowded as its supporting counterpart, but nevertheless six ladies made it particularly different slicing this crowd in two: Penelope Cruz's strength of character in Volver; Kirsten Dunst's charmingly naive Marie Antoinette; Sienna Miller's impersonation of the saddeningly superficial Edie Sedgwick in Factory Girl; Qi Shu's trio of parts in Three Times; Naomi Watts' bourgeosie-in-China in The Painted Veil; and young Zoe Weizenbaum's sympathetic attempts to be an adult in 12 and Holding.