Actors in period films often look like aliens in the time they’re playing. As great as Errol Flynn is as Robin Hood, you don’t for a second believe he’s actually a character from the 13th century. But then again, nobody at Warner Brothers ever pretended they were doing anything more than telling a good story. With great costumes.
A better example would be Keith Carradine in The Duellists. Unlike his co-star, Harvey Keitel, who looks and acts as though he’s stepped right out of Napoleon’s Hussars, Carradine comes across as a nice young man from the 1970s.
My favourite period performance is by David Thewlis as the Hospitaler, a God-fearing soldier in Ridley Scott’s film about the Crusades: kingdom of heaven. He looks like a man who feels the cold in draughty castles. He moves like someone in bulky 12th century clothes. And when he speaks, you believe you’re listening to a man of the time, a man for whom there is no doubt of God’s existence, for whom death will come sooner rather than later, and for whom duty is greater than any personal longings.
Two brief moments stick in my mind. Bidding adieu to balian, who’s about to cross the Mediterranean, he says, “The voyage is perilous. If God has purpose for you there, He’ll keep you safe in his hands. If not... God bless you.”
It’s the ever so slight emphasis on ‘bless’ that transforms what could have been a rote farewell into a deeply felt blessing for a dangerous journey. the way Thewliss says it makes you understand and feel a world in which God was not just honoured by name but an integral part of daily existence.
The second comes as he sets off with the Christian forces to fight the army of Saladin at the battle of Hattin. Balian, who’s remaining in Jerusalem, tries to convince him to stay. The hospitaller says that he cannot.
“You ride to certain death,” says Balian.
“All death is certain,” replies the hospitaler calmly, riding on into the dust of the desert where he will perish.
© Nick Garlick 2017