The Revenant is a visual, technical marvel which errs in only one major respect – the casting.
Leo DiCaprio is everyone’s favourite to take home gold at this year’s Oscars. With five nominations to his name, DiCaprio’s repeated snubs have become a standard Hollywood punch-line; though his near inevitable triumph this year is as much a product of his recent history as it is of current circumstance.
The once-Jack Dawson goes up against Bryan Cranston (Trumbo) and Michael Fassbender (Jobs) in two critically mixed releases, while Eddie Redmayne, nominated for The Danish Girl, won only last year for The Theory of Everything. Matt Damon’s performance in The Martian, DiCaprio’s only other competition, while charming, is no match for the weight of popular sentiment behind giving the man a win for his role as frontiersman/American folk figure Hugh Glass.
This doesn’t change the reality that either of his two main co-stars would have been a better fit for the role. DiCaprio shared the screen with Tom Hardy, cast as the film’s villain and fellow trapper, alongside rising star Domhnall Gleeson, the leader of their expedition.
Hardy, nominated this year for best supporting actor, is no stranger to complex, brutal and gripping roles. Emerging years ago as a minor player in Black Hawk Down, it was his transformation as the title character in Nicolas Winding Refn’s English prisoner drama Bronson which caught casting directors’ eyes the world over. Sadistic, physically imposing and darkly humorous, this was the first of many roles where Hardy would bring his inimitably gruff and instantly personable presence to his work, including this year’s Legend and critically acclaimed reboot Mad Max: Fury Road.
Hardy’s portrayal of The Revenant’s antagonist is among the most impactful elements of the film; in many moments he is as harrowing and frightening as the much-touted bear mauling. His ability to parlay complex emotions and resolve through looks and glances, something he has refined over a series of now acclaimed performances, is matched only by Gleeson, who delivers a similarly powerful performance as the dutiful commander even though he is gifted with even less screen time and dialogue.
Gleeson’s rise to fame has been abrupt and deserved; following an unexpectedly eclectic turn in Frank, The Revenant is by no means his most accomplished performance this year. He stole entire sequences as the tyrannical General Hux in The Force Awakens, having only months earlier commanded the lead role in Ex Machina, holding his ground against more than one exceptionally talented co-star. Gleeson, along with Hardy, has proven adept at playing the hero and the villain, the two elements which very much account for the success of this blunt, thrilling Oscar-magnet, which could have been all that much better by casting one of these two actors in the lead role.
This is not to say DiCaprio is wanting in his performances, far from it. Establishing at a young age with What’s Eating Gilbert Grape that he is not to be underestimated as a performer, DiCaprio, despite a series of worthy turns in The Basketball Diaries, Catch Me If You Can and other dramas, only began to be taken seriously as an actor following his efforts in The Departed. He went on to herald Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, and, playing against type, portray the villain Calvin Candie in Django Unchained.
Showing he can develop as an actor with each successive project, DiCaprio’s performance still never showed as much potential as the fractions of screen time afforded to his co-stars who could have done a lot more with his material and worked well with the Oscar-contender in one of The Revenant’s supporting roles. Even if DiCaprio’s acclaim for portraying Glass is an inevitability this year, one of the most awards-friendly pictures showed that casting the safest, most recognisable A-lister isn’t always the best call.
The Revenant is in cinemas now.
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