he word ‘favourite’ is thrown around so often. Favourite colour, animal, song, movie—it’s a term that can be applied to just about anything. It has also become meaningless. If somebody were to ask my favourite type of food this very second, I would probably say Indian; ask again tomorrow and the answer could well be Greek. We’re a fickle race, us humans.
Late-nineties, 10pm-ish: something “interesting” is on television, my mum says. Intrigued, I sit down beside her . . .
Heavenly Creatures (1994) holds a treasured place in my heart: it was the first piece of cinema–well, Jaws (1975) notwithstanding–that I fell truly, obsessively in love with. As a naïve tweenager whose knowledge of film reached only as far as Spielberg and classic Disney, that initial viewing was an experience like no other. It’s a picture that fires on all cylinders, from Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s impeccable writing, to the poised radiance of a rookie Kate Winslet and the shrill, excruciating ferocity of that denouement. And then, shining bright above all else, was fifteen!-year-old newcomer Melanie Lynskey as 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 whilst Lynskey’s came to a premature 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’s 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 much-missed IMDb message boards, and it was through those bustling online communities that I found myself sworn into an army of self-professed Melanie Lynskey superfans. The rest of the world hadn’t yet caught on that the other Heavenly Creature was back in the game and doing extraordinary things, but in cyberspace, a dutiful team of admirers was cheering for her.
There’s just something about those eyes, those brown, bottomless whirlpools of emotion—Jason Reitman, who directed Lynskey on Up in the Air (2009), nailed it best when he described them as “constantly joyful, and constantly on the verge of tears”. Her visage alone speaks volumes, never missing an opportunity to colour in the gaps between dialogue.
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 accessible, captivating, and real.
The fact that, finally, she’s getting to tackle the sort of characters that should’ve been entrusted to her from day one—messed-up, three-dimensional women—comes as no surprise; Lynskey’s skills have long stood vividly on display, and her deft, delicate aptitude 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.