April 30th, 2010 at 8:39 am
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December 10th, 2003 at 4:38 pm
Posted by admin in Portrait of a Lady

More or less Martin By RUTH HESSEY
The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 4 October, 1996

With his penchant for casting brooding male beauties, director Hal Hartley was the first to discover Martin Donovan. Faultless performances in “Trust”, “Simple Men” and “Surviving Desire” established Donovan’s unique oeuvre. “Hal changed the way I approached film,” says Donovan. “Stylistically, you have Hal and then you have everyone else. I learnt how little is required to give characters life. You have to restrain yourself.”

With “Amateur”, this actor who had been admired chiefly as an exponent of Hartley-isms – clipped speech and dead-pan delivery within a highly-choreographed frame – became something more. Playing an amnesiac opposite the consummate French star Isabelle Huppert, Donovan managed to break every rule in the actor’s manual. Without a character history to draw on, he was working straight from the inarticulate world of the heart.

Since then, Donovan has joined the elite of independent film stars such as Kevin Spacey and Steve Buscemi, and other directors, including Jane Campion, have embraced his tendency to do more with less. Fresh from Venice, where Campion’s “Portrait of A Lady”, which also stars Nicole Kidman, was greeted with rapture and disdain (a combination she must be accustomed to), the seemingly innate heaviness of spirit which characterises Donovan’s persona had lifted a little.

“Ralph Touchett was such a different character for me because he’s so open-hearted,” he explains, carefully. “It was hard for me to open up in that direction, but Jane kept reminding me: the story is not about his problems. He’s a very selfless person and all his energies are directed towards Isabel (played by Kidman).” Donovan says that Portrait is “even more courageous than “The Piano”. There is no doubt that here is a director in full command of her voice.”

Until “Portrait” is released in Australia, you can savour Donovan’s sombre allure in “Hollow Reed, a gritty new film from British director Angela Pope, in which he plays a British doctor whose estranged wife has started living with someone he thinks is beating up their son. But, because the doctor is gay, he has a hard time convincing the authorities that the child is safer with him.

“There is no “way’ to approach playing gay or straight,” says Donovan. “A queen is one extreme. A right-wing homophobic drill sergeant is another. But this is not a preachy film. I’m proud of it. I think we avoided the traps of social drama, and “gays are people too’.”

Clearly, if there is a church of independent cinema, Martin Donovan is one of its most intriguing saints.