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Rachel Weisz as Alice in 'Complete Unknown.' (© Courtesy of Amazon Pictures)
Rachel Weisz as Alice in 'Complete Unknown.' (© Courtesy of Amazon Pictures)
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Rachel Weisz Up Close and Dangerously Personal

Picture of Graham Fuller
Film Editor
Updated: 10 January 2017
Rachel Weisz plays radically different women in two new films, though both are unmoored. Alice, her character’s invented name in Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown, is a pathological liar and nomad who constantly changes her identity, much like an actor. In Derek Cianfrance’s early 1920s melodrama The Light Between Oceans, Weisz’s Hannah is a Southwest Australian coast-dweller grieving for her husband and child, who were lost at sea four years before she enters the movie at its midpoint.

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Between them, Weisz and Alicia Vikander, the latter film’s female lead, make Michael Fassbender’s traumatized former Anzac spin like a coracle in a whirlpool – not over sex, but over the plight of a foundling. He is all but mortified by the double whammy of these women’s desperate yet wholly explicable maternal cravings.

Weisz's Hannah makes a crucial choice in 'The Light Between Oceans.' (© DreamWorks Pictures)

Weisz’s Hannah makes a momentous choice in ‘The Light Between Oceans.’ (© DreamWorks Pictures)

Both actresses are irresistible forces, but Weisz comes on like a woman from ancient myths. With her Sphinx-like smile and Edwardian hairstyle, she sometimes looks like she stepped out of one of those  fin-de-siècle paintings that simultaneously celebrated and demonized sexually active women.

But only sometimes. She has run the gamut of hoydens and victims, playing a sexy but insufferable Sloane Ranger in Stealing Beauty; a vengeful feminist who turns her naive boyfriend into an art project in The Shape of Things; an adulteress made suicidal by her feckless lover in The Deep Blue Sea; a wife humiliatingly dumped by her husband for a pop singer who’s ‘good in bed’ in Youth.

Weisz with Tom Hiddleston in 'The Deep Blue Sea.' (© Music Box Pictures)

Weisz with Tom Hiddleston in ‘The Deep Blue Sea.’ (© Music Box Pictures)

In Complete Unknown – its title taken from Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ – Alice gatecrashes the Brooklyn birthday party of an old boyfriend, Tom (Michael Shannon), now married, whom she abandoned 15 years previously. She scandalizes his friends with her admission that she has cut off her family, then lures the flummoxed Tom into the streets. He eventually asks her if she ever married.

‘No, not married,’ she replies. Her emphasis on the last word speaks volumes about her habits as a woman who has already shucked off eight lives. Marston doesn’t judge her implied promiscuity. Alice yearns for Tom and what they once had, but her detachment from his conformism as an agri-policy adviser suggests how worldlier she is than him. Shannon plays him as a mirthless, unfulfilled man who doesn’t know how to respond when she leads him into the wondrous Long Island frog reserve at the lab where she’s been working as a herpetologist. Her disappointment is palpable.

Yet her keep-on-running modus has not made her happy. She is less a sufferer of Dissociative Identity Disorder than a woman who can’t conceive of domestic bliss lest it turn into domestic hell. It’s up to the individual viewer to decide if she’s an heroic Existential Outrider on the Road  to Enlightenment, or, as Tom says, in harsher terms, a mess. It’s enough that Weisz plays to the hilt a woman consumed by her own mystery.

Weisz as Lena in 'Youth.' (© Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Weisz as Lena in ‘Youth.’ (© Fox Searchlight Pictures)

As a victim of Foreign Office ‘White Mischief’ in Kenya in The Constant Gardener, Weisz won the 2005 Best Supporting Actress Oscar and the equivalent Golden Globe. That the awards didn’t bring her unequivocal Hollywood A-list status is a testament, perhaps, to her bracing English exoticism.
The combination of her elusiveness, aura of erotic danger, and that Kensington accent can be disarming. She is one of those female stars whose look, even when she is being sly, furtive, or guilt-ridden, tends to turn the male gaze back on itself, insisting on the gazer’s self-scrutiny, especially if her character is being reproachful or accusatory.

Marston had his cinematographer, Christos Voudouris, shoot Weisz in multiple close-ups. Shannon, Kathy Bates, Danny Glover, and Complete Unknown‘s other actors came in for the same scrutiny as Weisz, though she alone is simultaneously magnetic and alienating. Anyone wanting to kiss her woman of no fixed identity would be advised to get the hell out of there.

Interloper Alice in 'Complete Unknown.' (© IFC Films)

Weisz as interloper Alice, with Michael Chernus (l.), in ‘Complete Unknown.’ (© Jeong Park)

The Light Between Oceans, adapted from M.L. Stedman’s post-Great War novel and photographed by Adam Arkapaw, first shows Weisz in long-shot, her Hannah singing softly while she tends a graveyard memorial. His first close-up of her is devastating: her face crumples as misery re-asserts itself. Weisz looks haggard throughout the movie. Even when Hannah is newly blessed, she doesn’t sentimentalize her. Instead, Hannah remains bitter, the result of her German husband being hounded to his death by their neighbors whose menfolk were killed in the war. It’s one of Weisz’s bravest performances.

Even in semi-playful mode, as in Youth, she enters a vortex of unwanted emotions. She has become a queen of pain, and she wears it well. Still, it would surely come as a relief to her if she played Norah Charles in the long-mooted remake of 1934’s screwball thriller The Thin Man. No-one else could realistically step into Myrna Loy’s shoes – but, in the absence of a modern William Powell, who is man enough to be her Nick?