Their Finest: Old Hams!

Ralph Fiennes in Grand Budapest Hotel

Old school comedian Les Dawson used to have a popular routine where he’d attempt to play the piano and fail to hilarious effect when he was actually a hugely gifted musician. As well as showing our age, that story highlights the precedent that to appear casually terrible at something you actually have to be at the top of your game. This is something Bill Nighy demonstrates with aplomb in Their Finest, available on digital platforms from August 14th and on Blu-ray and DVD from August 21st.

Nighy is one of the country’s beloved character actors and whether he’s breaking hearts in Love Actually, swashing his buckle in Pirates of the Caribbean or tracking down rogue spies in Page Eight, Nighy has always been one of our most dextrous and treasured performers. In Their Finest Nighy plays washed-up ham Ambrose Hilliard. Disgruntled that his days as a matinee idol have faded and forced to take roles he thinks are beneath him in government propaganda films, Hilliard is the comic core around which the romantic drama unfolds – and it turns out he’s as brilliant at being terrible as he is at being brilliant.

In honour of Nighy and his ham actor alter ego, let’s raise a glass to him and to other amazing actors hamming it up on screen in the name of performance:

Bill Nighy in Their Finest (2016)

As Ambrose Hilliard, Nighy meets the indignity of playing a terrible actor brilliantly, serving thick chunks of largely talent-free ham in the scenes where he acts like he’s acting, while balancing that with the tragic weight of reality in more private moments as he both fights against and simultaneously accepts the hand the war has dealt his career as an actor.

Scenes opposite Henry Goodman and Helen McRory (who individually and to varying degrees of success serve as Hilliard’s manager) allow him to let rip and deliver some peak Nighy, but he’s just as good when failing to realise he’s being manipulated by Gemma Arterton’s canny Katrin.

Ralph Fiennes in Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The latest film from one of modern cinemas true visionaries, Wes Anderson, is probably his most hilarious, which is in no doubt thanks the extraordinarily OTT performance from Ralph Fiennes as fugitive concierge extraordinaire Monsieur Gustave H. Whilst spending the majority of the film on the run with his apprentice lobby boy and partner in crime Zero (Tony Revolori), Fiennes’ seldom seen comedy chops are called upon to glorious effect.

Despite the film’s tightly wound aesthetic, Fiennes manages to bring fresh eccentricity to the screen with perfect precision; every snappy comeback, camp eyebrow raise and nonchalant “darling” to his less-animated counterparts is executed to fit in the Anderson machine like clockwork. It seems even good ol’ Wes knows that a bit of ham every now and then is a wonderful thing!

Kenneth Branagh in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Branagh has rarely looked like he’s having as much fun as he does playing the fatuous, vain and morally bankrupt Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter film. The fact that he’s an actor of renowned nuance and subtlety (see Wallander, Valkyrie, Dunkirk for proof) doesn’t mean he can’t have fun and, as Lockhart, he’s a testament to the idea that it’s blondes who have the most fun.

Laying on the cheese with a trowel, Branagh is all toothy grin and over-coiffed hair until it comes to the crunch and the mask slips – this is one vain fool who will turn on a sixpence to protect his own hide, something Harry and friends nearly find out to their cost.

Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

Granted, you’d be hard pressed to find a performance from Pacino where there aren’t tooth marks in the scenery but in The Devil’s Advocate and, arguably, Scent of a Woman the scenery chewing is pretty much off the chart. The Devil’s Advocate, though, lets him get away with it a little more than other films have done quite simply because, well, he’s Satan and who’s in a position to say how over the top he might actually be?

The histrionics from Pacino also offer an animated counterpoint to Keanu Reeves’ dead-eyed stare throughout the film, looking for all the world as though he can’t for the life of him figure out how he’s ended up playing a hotshot lawyer in the Devil’s employ.

Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element (1997)

Luc Besson is clearly a fan of a) Gary Oldman and b) a joyous lack of subtlety and these twin facts are never more eloquently displayed than in the timelessly brilliant space opera, The Fifth Element. Until the early 1990s, Oldman had been best known for complex, edgy roles in the likes of Prick Up Your Ears and Sid & Nancy, and there’s been no shortage of them since then either, but 1994 saw him partner with Besson for the first time and go full tilt crazy playing the overblown, brilliantly watchable villain of the piece in Leon, before repeating the trick to glorious effect as Zorg opposite Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich. A masterclass in carefully prepared ham if ever there was one!


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