An Unusual Piece of Work
It’s not very often you come across such a paean of praise for an actor, movie, or TV production as appeared recently in The Guardian. It is even more remarkable since the production deals with Christian doctrines and themes.
A Love letter to Sean Bean
– The Most Heartbreakingly Mesmerising of Actors
It sometimes seems as though Jimmy McGovern named his latest show Broken because his aim is to break his viewers into pieces every week. We are now halfway through this series about Catholic priest Father Michael Kerrigan and the small flock he attempts to bring succour to in the north west of England – and every week has ended with me blubbering incoherently on the sofa.
Now no one does anger and pain and misery quite like McGovern, and with Broken he has plumbed new depths of social despair – but what makes it not just bearable but utterly gripping to watch is his dark, dry humour and the magnificent performance of his leading man, Sean Bean.
Bean’s Father Michael is quiet and conflicted, haunted by his past and battling a sadness that has seeped deep into his soul. He commands the screen, his pain flitting across that gaunt, ravaged face reminding us that some of the best actors say most when speaking least.
Thus we watch transfixed as Father Michael acts almost more as social worker than priest, trying to solve problems that are beyond prayer. We cheer as he attempts to rally his sparse congregation with a controversial attack on the “old men” who run the Catholic church and their “contempt for the bodies of women”, and smile as he goofily sings his sick mother to sleep with a full-throated rendition of Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo Choo.
Throughout it all Bean slowly, carefully builds up a portrait of a man who is both a part of this community and yet somehow apart from it, who gives freely of himself yet sits alone at the local bar, donning his sadness just as he puts on his chasuble for mass. As a study of loneliness it is thoughtful, subtle and ultimately mesmerising: a picture of a man on the verge of breakdown who is holding himself together through sheer faith and a desperate desire to atone.
It is not the most obvious of roles for Bean, now 58, who built a name for himself as a swashbuckler and sword-swinger, famous mostly for his many glorious on-screen deaths. He’s been shot, stabbed, pulled apart by horses, chased off a cliff by cows, thrown off a giant satellite dish, blown up, beheaded and turned into a human pin-cushion by Orc arrows. . . .
It was Game of Thrones that cemented his reputation for dying well. Games of Thrones was also the show that reminded people that behind the menace lurked an actor of great subtlety. His Ned Stark was both weary commander and good man fatally out of his depth; a lesser actor might have struggled to sell the often naive decisions that sealed Ned’s fate, but Bean’s authority and ability to say more with one frustrated look than a thousand speeches is what kept fans rooting for him to the bitter end. . . .
Yet this performance as Father Michael is something else again: interior, considered, filled with emotional heft. In this week’s episode, Michael finally confronted the priest whose actions destroyed his childhood and have hung heavy over his life. In a lesser drama, there would have been something cathartic in that moment. Instead, McGovern and Bean played it low-key and true as Michael pushed for answers only to find that his abuser simply didn’t care. It was a moment made all the more devastating by Bean’s quiet rage and the gut-wrenching brokenness at its core.
There are few actors capable of bringing that weight to a role. Of allowing you to see how a person can be both good but heartbreakingly, perhaps fatally, flawed. Of convincing you that a man so betrayed by the Catholic church as a child might return to that church thanks to a faith deeper than those betrayals and, crucially, of making you believe in every aspect of his character’s life from the good-natured interventions into his parishioners’ lives to those moments when, terribly, he ignores them out of a desire to be off-duty for once, to put down the candle, to be alone.
McGovern has noted that he never considered anyone else for the role: “I always go back to Sean – I just think he’s world class,” he said. “People know he’s good, but I know he’s great.” And, thanks to Broken, we all do now.
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