It’s become a rare experience to sit down to a movie and discover that Jessica Chastain’s not in it, says Tim Robey.
When the cast for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was announced, there was one name no one could put to a face. As far as we knew, “Jessica Chastain” might have been some exotically-plumed bird Malick had found on a trip round the Galapagos, or perhaps a species of willow in the title role. The trailers gave us a tantalising glimpse of her flame-haired beauty, but “Jessica Who?” was very much the refrain.
A few months after Tree’s Cannes premiere, things are quite different. It’s become a rare experience to sit down to a movie, scrutinise the cast, and discover that Jessica Chastain’s not in it. I’ve heard plenty of quips from colleagues by now that her presence feels like a statutory requirement in every 2011 release. It certainly makes you wonder about the last time a film star was this omnipresent. Back in the mid-1990s, it felt like Steve Buscemi was in everything (40 film roles, give or take, between 1990 and 1998). With seven back-to-back releases in this one year, Chastain’s starting to give him a run for his money. I’d recommend that Buscemi watch his back, but the likelihood of them gunning for the same parts is, prima facie, fairly slim.
Of course, no one actually makes seven films in a year. The Tree of Life was shot in 2008, and Chastain’s starring role in John Madden’s Mossad spy thriller The Debt was put in the can in 2009. It’s thanks to the peculiar vagaries of film releasing, and Malick’s legendarily long delays in post-production to go off and re-read Heidegger, or whatever, that Chastain’s films have piled up on us in this higgledy-piggledy fashion.
In a perfect world, her agent might have rearranged the timeline, and certainly stretched it out, to allow audiences a more coherent introduction to her talents. As it is, meeting her has been like stumbling into marriage, a drunken one-night-stand, several dinners and a couple of coffee dates, in goodness knows what order, in the space of a week. My first encounter was a Berlin screening of Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus, where she’s submerged beneath the movie’s male sound and fury, and outmatched in the female performance stakes – not that this is any great indignity – by the magnificent Vanessa Redgrave.
That wouldn’t have been a bad toe-in-the-water introduction for audiences, but Coriolanus (which is screening again at the London Film Festival) isn’t released here till January, the straggler of this litter. She got very good Cannes notices for her role in Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter, another LFF hot ticket, coming out in November, and she’s one of the best things about Southern-fried civil rights drama The Help, which opens here at the end of the month. Amid all this we have to square her eye-catching but purely functional supporting role in Texas Killing Fields, a grimy policier by Michael Mann’s daughter which just came out, and her far more prominent performance in The Debt, which she comes close to rescuing.
So it’s fair to say Chastain’s ubiquity has reached a pretty pass. This glare would be harsher than many a lesser actress could survive, but I’m more and more convinced she’ll make it. The Help, of all these opportunities, might emerge as her sprightliest breakthrough – it’s been a huge hit in America, and she makes her character far more multi-dimensional than any of her white co-stars. There’s a good chance of a supporting actress Oscar nod if they play their cards right, with an outside shot for Take Shelter instead.
Meanwhile, The Debt is still playing, from what I gather to pretty empty houses, and I note that The Tree of Life is hanging on in a couple of afternoon spots in the West End. With a little helping hand from press screenings, this means real Chastain-nuts could have themselves a mini-festival: six of her movies are showing in London cinemas currently. Running a one-day Chastain gauntlet should be a new cinephile challenge. Buscemi pops up in just the one LFF offering – Oren Moverman’s disappointingly turgid LA crime drama Rampart – but I’m tempted to go back and check there aren’t any telltale locks of red hair tucked down his collar.