#15 — Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells in Time After Time (Nicholas Meyer, 1979)
By now, it’s firmly established that playing a historical figure necessitates an actor pursue expert mimicry and slavish adherence to documented tics and tendencies above all else. While that can lead to truly remarkable work, it often results in overly staid performances, acting that has no edges or energy. Emotional truths are subsumed by the craftsmanlike conviction to master an accent or echo the specifics of a voice. It short, it can prevent artists from the vital task of playing the character, the need to honor the original person so burdensome that acting takes on the mustiness of dull portraiture. Something essential is lost.
Certainly, it’s not simply its genesis in another era that makes Malcolm McDowell’s take on H.G. Wells in Time After Time loose and inventive in a way that’s grandly freeing. This wasn’t some stuffy, Oscar-hungry biopic of a famed figure from the distant past. It was a high-concept lark back before zippy, hooky plots ruled the Hollywood development slate. Written and directed by Nicholas Meyer (making his feature debut in the latter role), the film posits that writer H.G. Wells didn’t simply concoct a time machine for the purposes of filling the pages of the novel, but actually had a fully functioning version of his device down in the basement. He introduces the machine to a dinner guest, surgeon John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner), in a gesture that seems fairly harmless, at least until the local police begin pursuing John in the correct belief that he’s been terrorizing the London streets as the infamous Jack the Ripper. John takes advantage of the unique route to the freedom that’s been laid before him and uses H.G.’s machine to escape into the future. The author pursues him to San Francisco, in 1979, setting into motion an extremely unique game of timestream displaced cat and mouse. This is not the stuff, to put it plainly, of studied verisimilitude.
What McDowell’s performance may lack in history book accuracy, it compensates for with resounding cleverness, perhaps more befitting for the famously creative person he comes to embody. Necessarily playing the befuddlement of a man thrust about one hundred years into the future, McDowell keys in on the character’s inquisitiveness and intellectual capacity for adaptation. Wells was, after all, an author whose most enduring tomes were whirlwinds of futurism that helped launch the genre of science fiction. After the shock subsides, H.G. instinctually tries to figure out this bizarre land he’s landed in, puzzling over the strange surface of a fast food table and gazing at the citizenry whose every bit of demeanor is entirely foreign to him. McDowell signals the ways in which H.G.’s mind is always whirring. He’s pursuing a single fugitive in time, but the entirely of this existence he’s been transplanted into is its own mystery. There is vulnerability built into the situation, but H.G. also operates with the composure of someone with just the right amount of confidence. This, like all things, he will be able to figure out.
It is similarly this always evident intellectual acumen that gives all facets of the film an authenticity within the fanciful flights, from H.G.’s romance with a modern bank employee (the invaluable Mary Steenburgen) to his heavy realization that his murderous acquaintance is less a man of out of a time than a person set right, his form of bloody punishment more suited to the hyper-violent modern times. Those notes are central to the success of both McDowell’s performance and the film itself. Despite the pulpy silliness of the premise, no one involved in the film treats the material like disposable fluff. Instead, there’s a plainspoken belief in the inherent value of the story, a resolute willingness to go wherever the unlikely logic leads. Meyer later went on to be one of the more important contributors to the Star Trek film franchise, contributing to the notably better even installments of the first iteration of the interstellar adventures, and Time After Time forecasts his ability to artfully counter borderline hokey sci-fi trappings with the dramatic gravity necessary to give the finished work depth and meaning. McDowell strikes the same precarious balance as H.G. Wells. It could have been silly and slight, and there are are certainly hints of that in McDowell’s slightly playful approach. But he simultaneously stays true to the core of his conception, insuring that the portrayal holds the proper amount of respect for the estimable cognitive capabilities of the man he plays. McDowell goes a long way towards making the unbelievable into the most plausible story imaginable.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte as Lionel Dobie in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton as Regina Lambert in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover as Simon in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams as Lisa Reisert in Red Eye