he word ‘favourite’ is bandied about a lot. Favourite colour, animal, song, movie—it’s a term that can be applied to just about anything. It has also become fairly meaningless. If somebody were to ask me right now to name my favourite type of food, I’d probably say Indian; ask the same question tomorrow and I might say Italian. We’re a fickle race, us humans.
Late-nineties . . . 10pm-ish . . . something “interesting” is on television, my mum says. Intrigued, I take a seat.
Heavenly Creatures (1994) holds a special place in my heart. With the exception of Jaws (1975), it was the first piece of cinema that I truly fell in love with. As a naïve tweenager with little knowledge of film outside of Spielberg and classic Disney, that initial experience was electrifying. It’s a movie that fires on all cylinders, from Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s impeccable script, to the poised radiance of a blossoming Kate Winslet and the shrill, agonising ferocity of that denouement. And then, shining bright above all else, was fifteen!-year-old newcomer Melanie Lynskey as the angst-ridden “Paul”, a sputtering furnace of scorn and disquietude, personified by the native Kiwi with a magnetism that was equal parts hair-raising and soul-shattering.
“That girl is an excellent actress”, my mum declares as Mario Lanza croons hauntingly over the end credits. I’m holding my breath—literally—without even realising. I exhale, then reply: “She is, isn’t she”.
Much has been written about the two or three years post-Creatures, during which Winslet’s career skyrocketed while Lynskey’s came to a halt. Possessed of a lack of industry know-how, an inherent timidity, and winsome, girl-next-door looks (qualities which nowadays would be championed), you could argue that, if anything, she was just a little too ahead of her time.
Fast-forward to the early-noughties: Lynskey had resurfaced—quietly, without fuss—in a succession of character-y supporting parts stretching from the teen-centric likes of Detroit Rock City and But I’m a Cheerleader (both 1999), to serious arthouse fare—The Cherry Orchard (1999); Snakeskin (2000); Shooters (2002)—and the higher echelons of Hollywood: Ever After (1998), Coyote Ugly (2000), Abandon (2002), Sweet Home Alabama (2002), and Shattered Glass (2003). It is a period I recall with great affection: social media hadn’t yet materialised—in lieu of Facebook and Twitter, we had Yahoo! Groups and the (sadly defunct) IMDb message boards, and it was thanks to those bustling communities that I became acquainted with, and initiated into, a loyal army of self-professed Melanie Lynskey superfans. The rest of the world hadn’t yet caught on to the fact the other Heavenly Creature was back in the game and doing miraculous things . . . but in cyberspace, a dutiful team of admirers was cheering her on.
There’s just something about those eyes, those brown, bottomless whirlpools of emotion. (Jason Reitman, her director on 2009’s Up in the Air, nailed it when he described them as “constantly joyful, and constantly on the verge of tears.”) Her visage alone speaks volumes, and it is the deft, delicate little spaces in-between dialogue where Lynskey’s performances spring to life.
Watch for the tenacity in her expression as she forces her way to the front of a crowd in Flags of Our Fathers (2006); her aching, desolate gaze during an impromptu pole dance in Away We Go (2009); a sparkle of sorrowful embarrassment when she realises the extent of her husband’s duplicity in The Informant! (2009); the way her nose twitches and her lips quiver as she cavorts with her secret beau in Hello I Must Be Going (2012); the frantic glugging of glass-after-glass of wine in The Intervention (2016); a forlorn scowl that screams of stifled disappointment in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017) . . . it’s precious moments such as these that make Lynskey’s work so captivating, accessible, and real.
The fact that, finally, she’s getting to tackle the type of characters that should’ve been entrusted to her from day one—messed-up, three-dimensional women—comes as no surprise; Lynskey’s capabilities have long stood boldly on display, and her shrewd knack for squeezing the utmost out of her time in front of the camera, whether top-billed or slaying it in three scenes, is nothing shy of magical.
It is because of all the above, and so much more, that I say with emphatic certainty: Melanie Lynskey is my favourite actress.