Tom Wilkinson: an actor of great humanity who seldom played the lead but dominated the screen


It is rare that the news of the death of an actor brings with it a pang of loss for something more than their craft, something perhaps more profound. But such was the public regard and affection for Tom Wilkinson that his death on December 30 at the age of 75 prompted much remembering of something greater than his brilliant acting: his unerring ability to convey a sense of humanity.

Wilkinson seldom played the leading man, and yet he often dominated the screen. That was perhaps most apparent in his appearance in the 2008 HBO series John Adams, where he played one of America’s founding fathers Benjamin Franklin alongside the titular second president (Paul Giamatti), a role that won him a Golden Globe.

In one scene, when Adams and Franklin meet the French king, Wilkinson stays in the background, but his subtle facial expressions provide a constant commentary on the ridiculousness of the French court which Adams/Giamatti takes in with wonder.

Wilkinson’s Benjamin Franklin is a clever, witty, cantankerous extrovert, often dominating scenes because he has the most dialogue. In many ways, that was unusual in the characters Wilkinson portrayed (with the exception perhaps of Arthur Edens in 2007’s Michael Clayton). Instead, his characters were often marked by a quiet but confident presence.

It is this quiet, watchful presence that many of his colleagues commented on after his death, and which some even found intimidating. Wilkinson, originally from Yorkshire, and educated at the University of Kent and then Rada, seemed to inhabit and even become his characters. Actors and directors who worked with him have described his naturalness and gentleness, his lack of ego and vanity, and his innate ability to get to the emotional truth of a character.

Low-key roles that shine

He was often cast in roles where he played outsiders whose marginalised status is either masked or played down: in The Full Monty (1997) he plays Gerald, the middle-class one-time foreman among a group of redundant working-class steel workers.

His qualifications land him a job interview when the others remain without luck, and his wife’s credit cards point to a level of affluence that the others can only dream of. But while he is clearly different, he manages to become part of the group, best demonstrated in the hilarious scene in the dole office where Gerald sways in perfect harmony with the others when Hot Stuff plays on the radio.

In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) Wilkinson portrays Graham Dashwood, a man who returns to India – where he grew up – to make amends to the young Indian man he was unable to love in his youth. His homosexuality isn’t commented on by the other characters, and Wilkinson carries it with the confidence of full acceptance.

In Normal (2003) he plays a transgender woman who after years of hiding her truth, opens up to her family and gradually transitions to a female body. Again, the quiet confidence in the conviction of having been born in the wrong body shines through Wilkinson’s performance.

This conviction – of knowing who the character is and, with that, how they should be played – is central to all of Wilkinson’s performances. For me, the film that made this most apparent is Priest (1994) where he plays a social-activist cleric in a poor Liverpool neighbourhood alongside a naive novice (Linus Roach). Of Wilkinson’s Father Matthew, the local bishop says: “Colonel Gaddafi would be a wee bit more orthodox than you.”

As a Catholic priest he has an illicit affair with his housekeeper, and regularly flaunts the rules of propriety. But in the end, it is clear that his moral compass is functioning better than that of his fellow clerics. It is because Father Matthew recognises his own fallibility and the shared humanity of those he is meant to guide, that he is able to act out of compassion rather than censure.

This compassion and emphasis on a shared humanity is what made Wilkinson’s performances so quietly powerful. It was there in Arthur Edens’ breakdown, in foreman Gerald’s sense of failure, in Graham Dashwood’s struggle with guilt and sadness, and Father Matthew’s acceptance of his own vulnerabilities.

This focus on humanity gave Wilkinson a reputation for seriousness and as someone who had no time for frivolity, even though many who acted alongside him have spoken of his dry wit and gentle humour.

But it is this sense of deep compassion and knowledge of what is morally right that many, including myself, felt so worthy of celebration. His impeccable performances will be long remembered, and will serve to remind us of what we have lost in Tom Wilkinson.

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