Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Vivien Merchant in Alfie

Vivien Merchant recieved her first and only Oscar nomination for her performance as Lily Clamacraft in Lewis Gilbert's Alfie. For a film about a self-centered, misogynistic lothario, Alfie has many of the same qualities of it's reprehensible main character. Michael Caine stars as the titular character, and the film aims to be something of a character study as it is only interested in understanding Alfie's skewed perspective on the world. Caine does well with this obnoxious character, but can't completely save the film from self-indulgence and lack of context. When it comes down to it, the film doesn't really care about anyone but Alfie, and has no sympathy for essentially anyone else in the film nor even deigns to give any of the women in particular any personality or humanity. The five or so women he dates are (almost) all mute wallflowers who stare at the wall and long after him for no real reason, lacking even a modicum inner life. Vivien Merchant plays Lily, one of Alfie's "conquests", who happens to be the wife of a friend of Alfie's he met while staying in a nursing home following something of a mental breakdown. Lily's husband Larry (a sweet Alfie Bass) is absolutely devoted to her and their three children, which Alfie finds absolutely pathetic.

Merchant plays Lily as an absolutely normal British housewife, who is serious and average and has some affection for her husband. Her first few scenes see her visiting her husband at the nursing home, where they chat and watch as Alfie seduces the nurses and blatantly has sex with them in their company behind partitions. Lily is disgusted yet somewhat intrigued by Alfie's adventurous sexuality. Her marriage seems to have become stagnant and perhaps a little bland. Merchant shows this all in simple, subtle ways through her eyes and facial expressions without even really having dialogue. It's nicely done, but nothing flashy or even truly noticeable unless you are looking for it. That all changes when on another visiting day, she and Alfie (released from the home) both visit her husband and Larry insists on Alfie giving her a ride home. Neither seems too keen on the idea, but both agree for Larry's sake. On the way home, they stop and get some lunch and Alfie "seduces" her simply because he's Alfie and he can. Throughout this all Merchant maintains her quiet subtlety. She clearly likes the attention that Alfie gives her, but seems almost to fall into having sex with him. Their entire scene they have barely any dialogue outside of Alfie's inner monologue, and Merchant remains pleasantly average with a winning smile.

At this point Lily disappears from the film for some time, seemingly just another lay of Alfie's until she pops back up at Alfie's apartment, where it quickly becomes clear she is meeting an abortionist there because she is pregnant with Alfie's child and can't keep it. Here is where the meat of Merchant's performance exists, as we see Lily struggling with the abortion and her contempt for Alfie. This all comes back after the abortion occurs and Alfie returns (she didn't want him there) to find her lying on his couch, the deed done. The way that Merchant shuts down Alfie's incessant chattering with pointed looks of annoyance and contempt for this man who clearly doesn't care a thing about her or the child is soft yet powerful. She recognizes Alfie for the asshole he is, as he lacks any understanding or sympathy for what she has just gone through. We also get her only loud moment, as Lily lets out a cry of anguish and sadness over what has just occured. It's a truly haunting sound that highlights the devastation Lily feels perfectly. Throughout her entire performance, Merchant never strays from her subdued, controlled acting style. She doesn't allow her performance to overshadow Caine's work, but works under him to force a character into being. Her emotion is certainly palpable, yet always understated.

Vivien Merchant has a wonderful handle on this character, and the role she plays in this film. She knows that Lily is just another chess piece on Alfie's journey to great "understanding" and she never overdoes her part with overacting or flashiness. Unfortunately for her, the film is just not concerned with the character of Lily Cramaclaft on any human level, and thus dulls the impact of this performance greatly. This is a quiet performance where the silence speaks volumes, and I admire Vivien Merchant for not "going there" and attempting to upstage the lead. This is a subliminal supporting performance, just as the director, and Alfie himself would have wanted. 3/5 Thelmas.

1 comment:

Alex in Movieland said...

we've already talked about the film. :P

I barely remember this performance. Expect it was good.