Irish actors, like Irish writers, are particularly difficult to place within their national pantheon. Two main schools compete: the roisterers (Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole) and the quiet-eyed watchmen (Gabriel Byrne, Brendan Gleeson). Of the latest wave and by flitting between the two, Michael Fassbender brings the freshest nuances to the paintbox of male lust (for justice in Hunger; for sex in Shame; for power in Macbeth; for techno-immortality in Steve Jobs). But perhaps the country’s most mysterious screen presence is Cillian Murphy, the Banquo’s ghost to Fassbender’s murderous king.
Just look at that face: high-fashion cheekbones, dolphin pools for eyes, the petals of the mouth, the sculpted neck. The accumulative vibe is faux-infantile alien, soothingly sinister, tough and ethereal with a technical exactitude as sharp as his physique. Like his frequent collaborator Tom Hardy, Murphy has expanded the scope of the action genre by reducing it. Art, wrote GK Chesterton, is limitation: “the essence of every picture is the frame”. Murphy’s gloriously inventive new film Free Fire, released in the UK on Friday 31st March, is one long shootout, just as Hardy’s Mad Max: Fury Road was essentially one long car chase, or Murphy’s 2005 thriller Red Eye one long disastrous flight, or Hardy’s Locke a single motorway journey…
The son of a French teacher and a civil servant, Murphy played guitar in a series of bands with his Beatles-mad brother and was even offered a record deal. He turned it down to pursue acting when he blazed onto the theatre scene in Edna Walsh’s play Disco Pigs having harangued the director for a part (Murphy has admitted to chasing directors with whom he particularly wants to work).
For Danny Boyle (another complex patriot), he led the London zombie horror 28 Days Later. Opposite a priest played by Liam Neeson (an actor Murphy sees as a father figure), he played a trans singer on the hunt for his mother in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto, a far cry from his role in Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning IRA drama The Wind That Shakes The Barley. For his Batman trilogy, Christopher Nolan reunited Murphy with Neeson to play The Scarecrow, a villain so disquietingly vivid it seemed to reinvent the rules of fear itself in mainstream film (like Hannibal Lecter, he’s not even on screen that much). Nolan was so impressed that most of Inception takes place within the mind-mountains of Murphy’s sleeping business heir.