In The Light Between Oceans, Michael Fassbender, plays a stoic World War I veteran, who falls truly, madly and deeply in love with Alicia Vikander as Isabel. It’s not uncommon, it seems all of Hollywood adores the twenty-seven-year-old Swedish actress.
The New York times praises her “the gamin bone structure, that sullen pout, those velvety fawn eyes,” and producer Lionel Wigram declared, “She’s a star. You can’t take your eyes off her on screen or in person.”
Her talent and versatility have made her so in demand it’s hard to believe that in her late teens drama school twice rejected her. According to her those dismissals were a blessing in disguise as they allowed her earlier access to “an industry that prizes youth in women.”
This weekend she takes on the romance of The Light Between Oceans as a precocious woman who asks a man she has just met to marry her. Based on an acclaimed and bestselling book by M. L. Stedman, it’s a story about choices, honour and true love that plays like a highbrow Nicolas Sparks story in period clothes. It also showcases Vikander’s range. In the last two years she has played everything from the personification of artificial intelligence to the estranged daughter of Hitler’s favourite rocket scientist.
After success in Swedish language film and television, Vikander made an impression in under seen films like the lushly beautiful Anna Karenina opposite Keira Knightley and Testament of Youth, a World War I era story of one woman’s voyage into pacifism.
It was Ex Machina, however, that made her a star. She played an automaton named Ava created by tech wiz Nathan “The Mozart of Code” Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is hired to evaluate if the robot’s ability to show intelligent behaviour equal to, or undifferentiated from, that of a human being. Ex Machina is presented as sci fi, but it really is a human drama; a human drama where the main character has a fibre optic nervous system. Vikander is equal parts warmth and chilly precision as a robot who wants more than to be a machine.
Next Guy Ritchie cast her in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and if he had Frankensteined an actress for the role of Gaby in the mould of 1960s starlets, he could not have topped Vikander as a picture perfect representation of mid-century cool. She looks like she was born to wear the oversized sunglasses and Mary Quaint frocks but she’s more than just the romantic interest.
In The Danish Girl Eddie Redmayne plays the title role, transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, and while he has the showier part it is Vikander, as Elbe’s ex-wife, who won a Best Supporting Oscar for holding the screen as the film’s emotional core, a woman who valued her relationship regardless of the changes that came her way.
Most recently she starred opposite Matt Damon as CIA’s cyber ops head Heather Lee in Jason Bourne and soon we’ll see her in the thriller Submergence with James McAvoy, Eva Green’s Euphoria and in the period piece Tulip Fever with Christoph Waltz. Perhaps the biggest indication of her industry clout is that she recently announced she’d be stepping in for Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in the rebooted Tomb Raider series.
Claridge’s Hotel in London is the kind of place you might expect a secret agent to call home. An unassuming entranceway leads into an opulent lobby with lots of quiet corners perfect for clandestine meetings. It’s the kind of place where Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin could do highly classified business over a martini, shaken or stirred. So, it’s appropriate I’m meeting Henry Cavill and Army Hammer here. They’re the stars of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. reboot and the latest actors, after Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, to play super spies Solo and Kuriatkin.
The TV show, which was equal parts camp and classic action, ran from 1964 to 68, made stars of its leads and established high-flying spy cool for a generation of television watchers. Cavill, who plays the suave Solo, however, says he has never seen the show.
“I prefer to operate as a blank canvas,” says Cavill, who will next be seen as the Man of Steel in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. “If you’re trying to make something your own you’re concentrating on the wrong thing. You should be concentrating on the story and evolving the story with your fellow actors and or director. That’s what we did.”
His co-star Hammer referred to the show to partially to craft his portrayal of the hothead KGB spy Kuryakin and partially “out of motivation of fear.”
“If I do this movie and someone asked me about the show I wanted to have an answer to give them,” he says. “I basically spent the weekend binge watching the whole show.”
He says the new movie incorporates elements of the original show, “so people who grew up with that will love and appreciate it but it is also a completely fresh take on it. That’s what we were going for, to make everybody happy.”
Like many spies (and actors who have played spies) before them, both utilized accents and costumes to disguise themselves and disappear into their roles.
Cavill, notes that the bespoke Saville Road suits he wore were the “final pieces of the puzzle” in creating the character. “The accent informs the way you physically interact with everybody and the suit the contains that.”
Hammer learned his accent listening to “old recordings of native Russian speakers trying to speak English, or barely speaking English and picking up little bits of both. At a certain point with the accent, I’d say after a week or two, it feels natural. You’re not spending your time making sure your words sound laboured. It starts to flow out as an accent.”
How to describe “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” to someone who wasn’t alive during the TV show’s mid-sixties heyday? How about James Bond with jokes? Or a less funny “Get Smart”? Perhaps as a Bizarro World CIA show that once saw the heroes prevent a stink bomb attack on Hollywood?
It was all those things and had two of the coolest character names in television history, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, played by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.
The new Guy Ritchie film, his first in four years, aims to grab the freewheeling spirit of the original show without dropping a stink bomb in theatres.
Set in 1963, it’s the origin story of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, the super secret spy organization who recruit CIA agent Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB agent Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). They’re an odd couple, enemies from the opposite sides of the justice system. Solo is suave and unflappable, Kuryakin is a hothead with a sensitive side who lets his fists do the talking.
“Don’t kill your partner on your first day,” they’re warned by their superiors.
Their mission is to infiltrate and dismantle a cartel of baddies who plan on selling nuclear weapons and technology to the highest bidder. The key to cracking the case is Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the estranged daughter of Hitler’s favourite rocket scientist. The trio set off on an assignment that will take them to exotic locations, confront glamorous villains and see the establishment of the fashionable crime fighting organization United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.
The “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” reboot is ripe with double-entendres, spy lingo, Solo’s off the cuff attitude—“Damn, I left my jacket in there,” he says when a room bursts into flames killing its occupant—and cool 1960s clothes. Ritchie and cast get all that stuff right. Cavill and Vikander look as though they have stepped out of a time machine from the Cold War especially to take on these roles, but what is missing, by and large, is the wild action we expect from our spy movies.
“U.N.C.L.E.” opens with a chase scene, complete with stunts and gunfire but it doesn’t have the spark we associate with Ritchie’s work. His frenetic whiplash editing is missing in favour of a much more subdued feel. Even Kuryakin mostly beats up people off screen. Perhaps it’s a new kind of anti-action cinema that tries to put the focus on the characters instead of the fireworks.
There is an inspired sequence that puts the action in the background while Solo enjoys wine and a sandwich and watches the carnage from the safety of a stolen truck. It’s stylish, funny and hints at the tone Ritchie was trying to achieve in the rest of the movie.
On the upside, it captures 60s cool with perfectly curated clothes and set decoration. Cavill glides through this, more Roger Moore than Sean Connery, nailing the arch delivery of a 60s super spy. Hammer lays it on thick with the Russian accent but pulls off the less showy role. If Ritchie was to have Frankensteined an actress for the role of Gaby in the mould of 1960s starlets, he could not have topped Vikander as a picture perfect representation of mid-century cool. She looks like she was born to wear the oversized sunglasses and Mary Quaint frocks but she isn’t simply the romantic interest. (SPOILER ALERT) With an ending that sets up a sequel don’t be surprised if there is a “Girl from U.N.C.L.E.” in theatres soon.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a treat for the eyes—it looks fantastic—but will not keep you on the edge of your seat. To paraphrase head of U.N.C.L.E., Mr. Waverly (Hugh Grant), “for a special agent [movie] you aren’t having a very special day are you?”