Wednesday 5 January 2011

Pete Postlethwaite (1946-2011)

Thinking, over the past couple of days, about Pete Postlethwaite performances. The resourceful butcher in A Private Function. Montague Tigg in Martin Chuzzlewit. Giuseppe Conlon in In the Name of the Father. Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects. Clem in Victoria Wood’s great costume drama parody Plots and Proposals. (“Mish Alish, you musht shink me a shorry shimpleton!”). The spectacularly tattooed Friar Lawrence in Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. King Lear in Rupert Goold’s controversial production. Mostly, though, I think about Postlethwaite as the volatile, tyrannical Father in Terence Davies’s indelible Distant Voices, Still Lives. In his book on the film, the poet Paul Farley sums up the power of that performance like this:

Postlethwaite’s father manages to cast quite a pall over Distant Voices. We hear his voice - full of attack, its default setting seemingly the barking of orders - before we actually see him … Our first shot of him - during the cellar scene as Maisie scrubs the stone floor - is from the waist down: dark slacks and shiny shoes, followed by an eruption of violence. He is the voice of the house ordering Eileen to get inside as she and Micky linger on the step for one last ciggie after the dance … When the family goes to visit him in hospital, it’s his voice itself that seems stricken, thwarted: his agonised ‘I was wrong, son’ to Tony is strangulated, gurgled, bent out of shape.

He is so often an aggressor, whether physical or frozen mute. In the frosty Christmas dinner scene he moves from one state to the other before our very eyes, and it is heartbreaking … Postlethwaite’s hands begin to shake, and soon his entire body seems racked by some invisible force he is struggling to, but can’t, contain … In the end the tablecloth is yanked away, and all the food and crockery along with it, and he yells for his wife to ‘clean it up!’. Later, at the other end of Distant Voices, he has turned back into a voice again, a shade: as the camera moves through an upstairs room flooded with light, with curtains billowing, we hear him call her name, aggressively, as thunder rumbles. (Farley, Distant Voices, Still Lives: BFI Modern Classics [2006], p.35-6).

Fantastic performance. Great actor.


  1. He will be missed. 'In the name of the father' had some of the finest performances I have ever seen. For me, Pete Postlethwaite's scenes with Daniel-Day Lewis were acting at its best.

  2. Very nice memorial post, Alex. I think Pete Postlethwaite's performances are memorable in every single film in which he appears. Strangely, the movie that I've been remembering him in the most is a tiny one, 1998's Among Giants. I believe I saw it on a whim during a trip to London and felt quite affected by it; smaller films seem to have that effect on me often. I also recall wondering about the scene of him lying in bed with Rachel Griffiths's character, when she makes a funny comment about his testicles moving around all by themselves. It felt unusual, and I had an eerie intuition about testicular cancer, from which he suffered a decade ago. Apparently, cancerous neoplasms still lingered in his system after treatment.

    I feel very fortunate to have seen him play King Lear in the Young Vic's production in March of 2009. I sat on the far edge of the front row, so it kept raining on me gently during the scenes on the heath (my shoes were glistening with water by the end), but that didn't stop me from feeling quite involved in his performance. His absence will certainly be felt for many years ahead in the worlds of theatre and cinema.

  3. A great loss indeed. I haven't seen AMONG GIANTS; must track it down. And I’m glad that you were able to see that LEAR production on one of your London trips, Jason. (The perils of the front row, though…)

  4. RIP. I may have seen DISTANT VOICES more than 10 times on different occasions, and his performance never failed to mesmerize me.