David Thewlis entered cinema with a big bang in 1993. True, his acting career started in the late '80s, but it was his performance as Johnny in Mike Leigh's 1993 masterpiece Naked that made him a star. The movie opens with Johnny raping a woman in what looks like the starkest alley in Manchester; he then steals a car, speeds down a freeway, and plunges into post-Thatcher London. Johnny is not likable, is not handsome, wears clothes that look like they smell, and has a fast mouth whose wit frequently draws from his A-level education (the British equivalent of an AA degree). He is a man whose past is as dark as his future. The streets of London take him this way and that. He meets a homeless young man and his girlfriend (she gets kicked and beaten by her boyfriend), he hurts another woman he first spots in a window, he philosophizes with a man guarding an empty "postmodern gas chamber" (a new corporate tower). The film ends with a broken man limping from nowhere to nowhere.
It's not at all bold to suggest that David Thewlis's performance of this morally and even physically repulsive human being stands above all other performances in the '90s. It was also not hard to believe at that time that Thewlis would become one of the greatest actors of his generation—the Michael Caine for the last days of the 20th century, the Bob Hoskins of the new millennium. At first, there were indications of this possibility, such as his lead role in Bernardo Bertolucci's average Besieged—he stars alongside Thandie Newton (she is an African maid, he is an English pianist, they are immigrants in Italy). But film after film, it became more and more clear that Thewlis was never going to return to the heights of Johnny. That role would be a mountain in a career with lots of hills and many, many more mounds.
Thewlis is a very busy actor. You can see him in lots of movies. He has a brief appearance in the Big Lebowski as the gay man who annoyingly laughs a lot, he's one of the many English actors who enjoyed the gravy train that is the Harry Potter series, he showed up in Basic Instinct 2, and he did his best to be a hard-hearted rural capitalist in Steven Spielberg's War Horse. I and many others were certainly surprised to see him in the remake of The Omen, and few will ever understand what gave him the idea to play an evil Nazi in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Even in good films, like Terry Gilliam's latest, The Zero Theorem (he plays the boss of the lead character, Qohen Leth, a genius gamer), he is always just okay. In Brad Anderson's highly entertaining new film Stonehearst Asylum, Thewlis gives another so-so performance as a villain.
Of course, Thewlis is not the lead villain of Stonehearst (that's Ben Kingsley's job), but he fills the necessary space in this atmospheric feature about a madhouse in the last days of the 19th century. The film, which is based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe ("The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether"), opens with an insane but very pretty, very delicate woman (Kate Beckinsale) being shown to medical students. She breathes like an animal, she pleads for help, she looks like her mind is gone. Later, a young doctor shows up at the gate of a palatial gothic building in the middle of nowhere. Dark clouds are above it, great trees are around it, and a fog clings to its grounds. This is the Stonehearst Asylum, and the doctor is Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess). The man who greets him at the gate is none other than Thewlis as Mickey Finn. But, as I said earlier, Mickey is not the main baddie; that is Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley).
After being introduced to Lamb's patients and methods, Newgate soon discovers that Lamb is not a real doctor. He is actually a madman who recently assumed control of the place. The real doctor, a certain Salt (Michael Caine), is being held with his staff in the dungeon below the asylum. What should Newgate do? Should he run for his life? Should he restore the natural order of things? For some reason, villain number one likes Newgate, but villain number two hates him.
The final result? Thewlis adds yet another mound to the many mounds that surround the mountain of his Johnny. Indeed, many us have already reached the conclusion that the mediocre Thewlis is the real Thewlis, and that his performance in Naked is a freak occurrence, like a person being struck by lightning.