If Colin Farrell is the heart throb, Liam Neeson the action star, Michael Fassbender the credible leading man, then Brendan Gleeson must be the greatest Irish character actor. He is to Ireland what John Goodman or Stanley Tucci are to America and Ben Wishaw is to England, a reliable face, a strong actor, a reliable figure and an asset to whatever project he is working on.
The Dublin born actor came to prominence relatively later in his life (previously an English teacher, he was in his mid-thirties when he played Michael Collins in ´The Treaty´(1991), his first role of note), but has managed an impressive body of work in the mean-time.
An affable character, Gleeson´s characters have an audible charm to them, ostensibly Irish, twinkle in eye, poetry in mouth, a charm which certainly makes up for his mild lack of good looks. Whether an altruistic priest, a zombie survivor, a foul mouthed policeman or a violent vagabond, Gleeson has many bows to his arrow; and future projects with Academy Award winners Martin Scorsesse and Ben Affleck proves how much his artistic cache has in the field of Hollywood.
Much like Alan Rickman, Gleeson may be best known internationally as ´Mad Eye Moody´ from the ´Harry Potter´ series. But leaving the boy wizard to one side, Gleeson has given many great performances throughout the years, whether as a side character, an irreverent cameo or a fine leading character, Gleeson has rarely been anything less than impressive and at his best, an actor few can reckon with.
10. A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) (2001, Steven Spielberg)
One of Steven Spielberg´s more polarising films (tellingly, Mark Kermode slated it for years, before re-assessing it a decade after its release and personally apologised to the director for his previous opinion), A.I. is a hard film to watch on a Friday night; it´s neither a popcorn flick nor a wonderful piece of cerebral art. But it works better as the film progresses and as the first half comes to a close, Gleeson´s Lord Johnson-Johnson enters to mirror the films darker tones.
Declaring to an audience at the Flesh-Fair the futility of mechanisation” Of course, we all know why they made them. To steal your hearts, to replace your children. This is the latest generation in a series of insults to human dignity… and in their grand scheme to phase out all of God’s little children. Meet the next generation of child designed… to do just that.”
Treating lead character David (Haely Joel Osment) as a circus freak, Gleeson´s speech evokes feats of anarchism with dark shades of villainy, his Gaelic dictation pronunced with extra strength to show how much of a pnatomine this scene is.
Walking and circling the various apparatus with vigour, Gleeson gives a showy performance, more in line with a theatrical villain more so than some of his more nuanced performances; yet he is excellent at showing the genuine disgust humanity may feel towards robots; a circus owner with a taste for the finely worded. A strong cameo.
9. Breakfast on Pluto (2005, Neil Jordan)
“Overground, underground, wombling free, the wombles of Wimbledon common are we “. For three generations of viewers, these creatures delighted and excited young children. With their pointy noses, delicate eyes and furry dexterior, these little guys could do no wrong. Then Brendan Gleeson stepped into a womble costume and turned their image upside down. Irreverent? Not half!
Despite a valiant performance from Cillian Murphy, ´Pluto´ is a mess of a film, unsure what genre it´s supposed to be, neither a comedy, nor a pointed drama, an odd addition to Neil Jordan´s stirling resume (his similarly themed ´The Crying Game´ is a far superior film, one of the best films of the last thirty years).
But Gleeson´s cameo as the ebullient John Joe is one of the finer parts of the film. Instructing Kitty Braden on how to act like a Womble, the choreographed steps, jumping, skipping, and general childish antics makes for one the films funniest antics, only losing his temper at one of the punters who has arrived to ridicule the costumed paraders. But at his heart is an altruistic ex-pat, keen to help out his fellow countrymen, regardless of their gender.
It´s not a lengthy performance, but it is one that the film would sorely lack for its sheer lunacy and run-down veracity. HIs mouthy language further illuminates the hilarity over the topic of child puppetry. Sidney Lumet once said “there´s no such thing as a small part, just small actors”. here, he´s right!
8. The Guard (2011, John Michael McDonagh)
An odd film, one which shows many of the Galway inhabitants as dim-witted folk, incorporating every Irish stereotype known to man (comedian Pat Shortt appears as a member of the IRA. In 2011, really?), yet protects and reveres the Irish people´s traditions and language (Don Cheadle´s character is gloriously sent off in Gaelic . Iontach).
It´s both ´Darby O ´Gill´ and ´The Field´. And to centre the surroundings, there´s Gleeson´s bombastic, flabbergasting Seargeant Gerry Boyle, a man who hasn´t grasped the change of the century, as politically incorrect explitive follows explitive, but genuine in his dealing with people.
Talking to ´Den of Geek´ during the film´s promotion, Gleeson went into detail about the character´s make-up. “With Boyle, he had an ambition, he thought he was going to be tested, and it hadn’t happened. So he eats himself up in terms of everything. Cynicism, sarcasm.
Those things are very funny, but ultimately they’re terribly negative ways to live your life, if that’s your only compensation.” Cynical? Not half. Facing off venile thug Liam O´Leary, he dismisses O´Leary´s sanguine plea for more life with the caustic retort “Running with the bulls at Pamplona?”. Who said the Irish can´t be bullish?
Behind the rugged dexterior is a man who adores and mourns the loss of his mother, beautifully playing the film´s most poignant scene as he puts her belongings away, taking into his life hers and all that went before it. It´s a stoic moment, giving the comedy gravitas it otherwise may have pulled away from. But Gleeson leaves the stoic theatrics for the film´s cracing finale, as he turns himself into the leading action man he never showed himself as previously.
A commercial hit on release, it left many awaiting collaboration between Gleeson and director John Michael McDonagh later. It arrived three years later, the result being one of the greatest Irish films of all time.
7. Into The West (1992. Mike Newell)
One of the more underrated examples of magic-realism, ´West´ has a starry Irish cast, Gabriel Byrne, Colm Meaney and David Kelly providing the meat of the film as charismatic Irish Travellers. On the opposite side stands Gleeson´s Inspector Bolger. Where his later Sergeant Boyle was likeable, if doltish, Bolger is a very different beast, a true despicable man, his festering dislike for the Travelling community reaching to scream out.
Racing after two boys and their white horse, Boyle´s rage comes to the forefront as he uses his unethical police methods on their father ´Papa´ Reilly (Gabriel Byrne). Punching his face off boards, leaving visible sores, Boyle shows Gleeson strong build; a terrifyingly robust character unafraid to show his authority.
Despite his large build, Gleeson has rarely shown a physical side to him on screen, but ´West´ sufficiently shows how large and hefty he translates across the screen. It´s not just Christian Bale who can smash heads, you know?
As the film comes ever closer to its close, it is shocking how cruel a character Bolger is, cackling as his fellow men assault Reilly´s crew, leaving seven year old Oisin (Ciaran Fitzgerald) to a dangerous horse and ocean in the process. Less Bond villain, and more Bond henchman, Bolger´s not the type to befriend on a Friday night.
Gleeson is excellent, his most physically daunting performance a strong display of rage and agility. Gleeson would reunite with the two young leads in future years; Ciaran Fitzgerald in ´The General´ (1998) and with Ruadhri Conroy in ´Six Shooter´ (2006).
6. The Butcher Boy (1997, Neil Jordan)
Talking to CraveOnline in 2014, Gleeson compared his new incarnation of a clerical Catholic priest with that of his previosu itterration. “Well, I had played a priest in The Butcher Boy prior and I didn’t get an awful long run at it. Father Bubbles was the guy’s name, and I liked him… I sang a song, I remember, walking down a road. Francie Brady, the young kid character who’s so disturbed, Sinead O’Connor appeared to him as the Virgin Mary… he didn´t swear that much”.
Playing the man with a belief “no boy is so bad you can´t find a scrap of goodness in him”, Bubbles stands by Brady, a disturbed and fragile child, when most of the rest of his town think him beyond redemption.
Patrick McCabe´s novel, believed unfilmable by many, proved a difficult challenge for Neil Jordan to direct, the many subplots and fantasy sequences difficult to streamline in a film (no wonder ´At Swim Two Birds´ remains unfilmed, despite Gleeson´s efforts to bring it to the big screen!).
The film works by focusing on Brady passively, and through the eyes of the audience, they can make their own minds up about the boy. Gleeson´s Bubbles shows a passive option when other great Irish thesps Fiona Shaw ´s Mrs Nugent verbally berates himand his father (played by Neil Jordan darling Stephen Rea) triviliases him.
One key player among an ensemble of Irish greats, Gleeson allows his character to say his piece within the story and lets the others say what else they have to say. Emanuel Levy, writing for ´Variety´claims “like a rich Dickens novel, the film is sprinkled with standout character performances that give it its frenzied, seriocomic texture”. Says it all, really!