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Any half decent actor can make words on a page sound real; what makes a master is moment to moment unpredictability.
It’s why we all adore Isabelle Huppert. It’s why Kristen Stewart is the latest arthouse sensation. It’s what Rooney Mara has too ― the ability to be so in touch with a character that each glance and intonation is unprecedented. She thinks beyond the obvious. Every moment brings something new.
However, Mara has something more than mere talent. There are hundreds of great actors playing character roles and working in theatre who are obscure to the masses. Hollywood fixated on her where it ignored many worthy others. Sure, her rich family’s high status was able to help her gain visibility quicker than she might have otherwise, but that can only do so much: the lukewarm (so far) career of her talented but less distinguishable sister Kate is evidence enough of that.
Mara is divisive: some outright dismiss her and others seem to devote their entire online existence to defending her and claiming her for their own. That’s only further proof that her success is not simply built on likeable prettiness and passable talent. She has a quality to her that sets her apart from all of her contemporaries.
I wouldn’t be the first to call her ‘otherworldly’: as Therese Belivet in Carol she was described as having been ‘flung out of space’. It’s a phrase that will likely follow Mara for the rest of her career, so perfectly does it capture her appeal. Like Tilda Swinton, her odd and entrancing combination of features ― and the rounded tone of her voice ― makes her an object of fascination. Her indefinable appearance also allows her to dissolve and reform with each new role.
Yet Mara is a bundle of contradictions. She seems flung out of space, but her understanding of how humans work is acute and perceptive. In interviews, she’s identified herself as a ‘people watcher’. It shows: she not only understands people, but she understands what it is that we find interesting about each other. She understands why we have a compulsion to watch actors. She is fascinating to watch when a director lets her exist in a space, because she understands the root of that fascination ― and how to feed it.
It’s easy for a director to misuse her talents. Her collaborations have been mostly stellar lately, but such a prolific actress is bound to have some missteps.
Earlier this year, Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery reduced her to a type, and despite Mara’s best efforts, her defining qualities began to feel like affectations ― because she was given nothing else to work with. Her first appearance in the film feels like we’re being thrown a life raft ― with her excitingly alternative star appeal acting as a rescue from the film’s pervading dullness ― but eventually her intriguing energy is stifled.
Luckily The Discovery is one of a few exceptions to the rule (let’s not mention Pan, shall we?). A list of her best films would be different from the one I’m about to unveil: for starters, Her would figure highly ― a film in which her uniqueness works well to make a series of brief flashbacks feel vivid. A list of greatest performances might also be slightly different: a lesser thought of ― and flawed ― film such as Side Effects might have earned a spot. Instead, here are the five performances that have defined Mara’s career thus far, in honour of her quietly stunning turn in A Ghost Story ― out in UK cinemas today.
5. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)
Before A Ghost Story, Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck collaborated with David Lowery on his second feature: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The two stars remain separate throughout most of the film, and they have roughly equal amounts of screen time ― but Mara is the one that matters.
Set in 1970s Texas, the film’s rustic stylings make it feel even further back in time than it is. It’s a fable, so distant from our modern world that even the late-on appearance of a landline phone feels invasive. At the very beginning, Mara and Affleck’s married couple are split apart by his arrest for a murder she committed, and that they were both complicit in.
The film follows his jailbreak and journey to be reunited with her ― while her life goes on after having his child. Like A Ghost Story, this lyrical, gentle, sunlit tale is about moving on. The mechanics of the plot depend on Affleck, but the thematic heart lies solely with Mara’s journey to find peace and independence. It is a transcendent piece of cinema, and she helps it soar.
4. The Social Network (2010)
It only took one scene for Rooney Mara to announce her arrival. The year before David Fincher helped her to her first Oscar nomination with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he cast her as the muse to Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network ― the story of the creation of Facebook.
The film’s iconic opening scene is perhaps the finest concentrated example of Aaron Sorkin’s rapid fire, intricate dialogue ― and Eisenberg and Mara devour it. They war with words, and Mara’s presence is fierce enough to give Eisenberg’s ensuing journey motivation: she starts the film by dumping him and barely appears again, but his desire to get his own back fuels the entire story. It makes total sense that, after all is said and done, he ends up back where he started ― fixated on the girl who left such an unforgettable impression.
3. A Ghost Story (2017)
Rooney Mara eats a pie in this movie.
Based on the initial Sundance reactions, you might think that that’s all that happens in A Ghost Story. It’s not: this movie spans lifetimes, and manages to encompass the whole of life on earth within 90 minutes. Still, many reduced it to one ten minute scene, mostly shot in a single static take. Yes, Rooney Mara does eat a pie in this movie, and as much as I hate to reduce the film down to that… it is glorious.
The scene’s fast-growing mythology already makes Mara’s performance as the unnamed M one of her most ‘definitive’ ― but it’s not just the novelty that makes it notable. Mara’s acting throughout the film is some of her most nuanced. Without a hint of melodrama, she gently articulates the isolated experience of grief.
The pie scene is the pinnacle, being the clearest example in the actress’ career of that moment-to-moment magic she’s able to conjure. During those near-silent five minutes, spent doggedly attacking the pie while sitting on the floor, the stakes are lowered so much that a crumb falling to the floor becomes a major event. However, while all Mara is doing is eating and snivelling ― in a shot that doesn’t even allow us to see her whole face ― every forkful feels different. She is not simply eating a pie. She is cannibalising her grief. We feel it all along with her.
2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
The Social Network may be a more important film, but when it comes to Rooney Mara’s career, nothing was more revelatory than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Mara often makes subtle physical transformations, but Dragon Tattoo is a whole different ball park ― she is unrecognisable. The role of Lisbeth Salander was previously taken on (in acclaimed fashion) by Noomi Rapace, and devotees to the original were hesitant to accept David Fincher’s American version. Still, there was little doubt when it came to Rooney Mara’s performance.
It defined Mara as an actress who is unconcerned with her star image ― only the image of the individual characters she plays. Curiously, the role hasn’t led to similar roles for Mara ― perhaps because people aren’t writing many female characters similar to Lisbeth ― but it has come to define how we see her and the amount of professional respect she is afforded. There are those who unfairly criticise actresses similar to Mara for a lack of range, but with Dragon Tattoo she silenced them before they had a chance to open their mouths.
1. Carol (2015)
Rooney Mara’s best performance is in Carol. It is the performance that most defines her image. It also might just be the best film she has ever starred in ― high praise that is easily earned by Todd Haynes’ masterpiece.
It is a beautiful love story, that expands the book’s scope to include the perspectives of both main characters ― Therese Belivet (Mara) and Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) ― rather than keeping us confined within Therese’s headspace. However, the film still works exceptionally well as a detailed character study of Therese, largely because of the extraordinarily nuanced, incremental transformation that Mara executes throughout the course of the film.
It is not a screamingly obvious physical transformation like the one in Dragon Tattoo, but rather one of strengthening physicality ― the growth from girl to woman. Throughout, Mara makes a strong case that she should be cast in an Audrey Hepburn biopic: the resemblance is uncanny. During the film she seems to grow in stature, as if she is filling out her own skin. She becomes more and more refined, slowly coming to resemble the glamorous side of Hepburn’s celebrity persona. She embodies the way that a person can totally transform when afforded the luxuries of a love that gives them self confidence and a sense of self worth.
Startlingly, the Academy placed her in the Supporting Actress category… which couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, she acts across from a superlative, career-best Cate Blanchett ― and still manages to steal the show.