The Performance of a Lifetime

(Canada, 83 min.)
Dir. Erik Canuel, Writ. Erik Canuel (adaptation), William Luce (stage play)
Starring: Christopher Plummer, John Plumpis
If you thought that Christopher Plummer was great in Beginners, wait until you see him in Barrymore. It’s truly a treat to watch Canada’s greatest actor give the performance of a lifetime as John Barrymore. Plummer reprises his Tony-winning role in this piece of film-mediated drama by director Erik Canuel (Bon Cop, Bad Cop). Plummer performs Barrymore in Toronto’s Elgin Theatre (aka the Visa Screening Room during TIFF) and one sees quite easily how Plummer would be such a commanding force on stage. Now that Plummer receives the extra degrees of freedom and intimacy afforded by the camera, though, it looks like he takes his performance to another level. It’s like watching the history of acting performed in one 83-minute feat: from Shakespeare to Vaudeville, from stage to screen, Plummer does it all and he does it remarkably.

Plummer plays Barrymore in the year 1942. Times are tough and Barrymore is at war with himself: he has rented a theatre and he plans to rehearse his great performance as Richard III before reprising it for an audience. As the years have gone by, however, Barrymore’s stock has waned. He has also become a vibrant alcoholic, which helps neither his ability to remember lines nor his capacity to suppress old memories.
Barrymore stumbles in the theatre unaware that he is walking into a full house. Happy to see so many adoring fans, Barrymore instantly puts himself at ease, makes a giant Manhattan, and shoots the breeze with the crowd. He remembers old times and hammily puts on a show that includes anecdotal name-dropping, punny zingers, and campy show tunes. Barrymore enjoys himself thoroughly until the audience disappears in a quick cut and he realizes that he is simply an old coot who is drinking alone.

Then Barrymore’s fateful helper, Frank (John Plumpis), pops in to help with the line readings. Despite Barrymore’s gusto to reclaim his great role, he can’t seem to remember his lines. It takes several cues for Barrymore to work his way through the opening soliloquy of “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Each line, however, prompts old memories and Barrymore trades one performance for another. He reminisces about the good old days and, fueled by more drink, the bad ones, too.

It takes a talented actor to do good Shakespeare (both for the stage and for the screen). It takes an even greater actor to veer in and out of character(s) and all the while alternate between iambic pentameter and drunken bravado. Plummer does several of the great Shakespearean speeches, including Richard, Hamlet, Jacques, and Prospero. It’s such stuff as dreams are made on, even more so because one sees how quickly the actor can change style and persona, yet still retain his character of John Barrymore throughout. Plummer sells Barrymore’s hammy vaudevillian side, too, by infusing the campy lines with a twinge of irony, which shows that both the man and the style are the product of a bygone era.

The range of theatrical references is merely one way in which Barrymore acknowledges its roots in the stage. Barrymore constantly reminds the viewer that it is a show by cutting to Frank in the wings, or by reverting to a long shot that has Plummer act within the great scope to the proscenium arch of the stage. By drawing attention to its theatricality, Barrymore accentuates the isolation and urgency of its one-man show. Bound to the stage and ruled by the law of enclosure, Barrymore can’t seem to free himself of the old demons that permeate his performance.

What is greatest about Barrymore, though, is Plummer’s negotiation of stage and screen. This is clearly an actor who understands the limitations, nuances and profits of each medium, and he manipulates the polarities of stage and screen when it best suits the mindset of his character. Plummer makes the stagy nature of Barrymore work to the film’s advantage. Rather than succumb to the suffocation that the fourth wall often imposes on filmed drama, Plummer instead approaches it and has Barrymore rest his shoulder on the wall and deliver a cheerful nod and a wink straight to the camera. With the added effect of the close-up, moreover, Plummer gives his character a hint of agony that one might not see in a stage production. The depth and range of his performance excels throughout, with Plummer’s zoomed-out recitals of Barrymore’s volatile raging proving as effective as the repressed tears that are made visible by the camera.

In this astonishing career-best performance in Barrymore, Christopher Plummer achieves a rare feat and proves that there is no difference between theatre and film when it comes to great acting. It took until his eighty-second birthday for Mr. Plummer to finally win an Academy Award. With any justice, he might have a second by the time he is eighty-three. 

Rating: (out of ★★★★★)  

Barrymore screened as part of Cineplex’s Front Row Centre series. Encore presentations will screen on June 2, 7, and 10. See http://www.cineplex.com/Events for locations, show times, and tickets.

UPDATE: The Hollywood Reporter reports that Barrymore will hit US theatres (NY & LA) on Nov. 15.