5 Great Screen Performances by Mark Rylance (Before He Was Famous)

Mark Rylance - Sir Mark Rylance, actually - is one of the finest actors ever to tread the boards of British theatres. Born in Kent, raised in Wisconsin, he returned to the UK to train at RADA in the early 1980s alongside Kenneth Branagh (who also stars in Dunkirk), Fiona Shaw, Sean Bean, Janet McTeer and many more of our most beloved and talented thesps. He began his career at the vibrant and eclectic Glasgow Citizens Theatre before stints at the National Theatre and the RSC, where he played Romeo and Hamlet in the same year (bang!). In 1991 he founded Phoebus’ Cart, an actor-managed theatre company that devoted itself to taking Shakespeare on a magical mystery tour of non-conventional locations, starting off with The Tempest at the Rollright Stone Circle (a mini-Stonehenge near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire), Corfe Castle in Dorset, and a bare patch of earth on the south side of the river Thames, barely a building site between a massive disused power station (aka Tate Modern) and Southwark Bridge.

It was on that piece of land that Rylance played Prospero (aged 31!) and met Sam Wanamaker, whose vision and dream it was to rebuild Shakespeare’s Globe. The encounter was momentous, and only a few years later, after Wanamaker’s sudden death in 1993, it was Mark Rylance who opened the brand new ancient theatre as its Artistic Director and lead actor, starring in Henry V directed by Richard Olivier (son of Laurence) in the opening season of 1997. The rest is history: 10 years as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe that established it firmly as a serious actors’ space, not just a wildly successful tourist attraction; a few Olivier and Tony awards (for which he gave some of the most bonkers and brilliant acceptance speeches of all time), and a career-defining lead role in Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem later, Mark Rylance is now a globally recognised stage superstar.

If Rylance's hallowed and focussed stage career has meant that compared with his contemporaries Daniel Day-Lewis, Ralph Fiennes and Kenneth Branagh, he turned up late to the film game, it's not for lack of opportunities. Famously, back in 1985, he turned down a major role in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun that could have launched his big screen career to pursue a theatre project, and was rarely tempted by better pay and less work on TV. Perhaps this has something to do with his nature as an actor who develops each performance meticulously and organically to grow over the course of an extended time period - the chopped up nature of camera acting is something that such a stage creature would undoubtedly find frustrating. The truth is also that Rylance has always been super selective about his film work. Look into his back catalogue and you find collaborations and projects that are off the beaten track for any actor: early work with Peter Greenaway in Prospero's Books here, a leading role in the Brothers Quay’s first live action feature there, and then finally an ongoing partnership with Steven Spielberg that consecrated his arrival in Hollywood with an Oscar for Best Actor in A Supporting Role in Bridge of Spies opposite Tom Hanks.

Between the release of Dunkirk and the next few years Rylance is set to star in Spielberg’s upcoming dystopian sci-fi Ready Player One and international Jesuit spy-thriller (!) The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (recently shot in cinephile heaven, Bologna, Italy), and rumour has it that he is inch-thick, knee-deep involved in the development of Embrace of the Serpent director Ciro Guerra’s English language debut - an adaptation of South African Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians. He would have been our pick for young(er) Dumbledore in the next Fantastic Beasts, too, but for now we’ll take these instead.

You’re probably more than familiar with late-period Rylance, so here are five early screen performances to discover his work “before he was famous”:

The Grass Arena (1991)


This brilliant TV film directed by Gillies MacKinnon (Regeneration), is the adaptation of an autobiography by John Healy (Mark Rylance), a second-generation Irish Londoner whose early promise as a youth boxing talent was ruined by abuse at the hands of his father and a subsequent descent into alcoholism. After becoming homeless and committing petty crimes, Healy ends up in jail, where he learns to play chess. Discovering that he has an immense talent for it and that he finds the mental exercise soothing and restorative, he manages to beat his addiction as well as number of grandmasters. Rylance finds grace and transcendence in this unique character, conveying both aspects of a damaged and yet incredibly intelligent mind. You can see a very brief clip of this notoriously difficult to track down film in Mark Kermode's Rylance Retrospective.

The Institute Benjamenta, Or This Dream People Call Human Life (1995)


Concocted in a place of the mind where David Lynch, Buster Keaton and Jan Svankmajer might meet for a nightcap, this weird and wonderful dream-like drama from the Brothers Quay is the story of Jakob von Gunten (Mark Rylance), a young man who enlists at the titular Institute, a school for servants located in the Alps at the turn of the century. The Institute is run by Herr and Fräulein Benjamenta, who teach only one lesson (“How to be a zero”), endlessly repeated. Enthralled by the mystery of the Institute’s previous tenants and facilities, Jakob starts exploring it by night - or is he in fact journeying within the recesses of his own psyche to uncover dark and complicated desires? Rylance’s Jakob combines Mitteleuropean uncanny and Kafkaesque humour through a gloriously unsettling performance that relies on both puppet-like choreography and a Buster Keaton-esque deadpan face - and yet still manages to touch the emotions. Read more about the film here.

Angels & Insects (1996)


A star vehicle to re-launch the career of model and pop star Patsy Kensit, this lush costume drama was adapted from a short story by A.S. Byatt about a gifted but poor naturalist (Rylance) who returns to Victorian England from research travels in the Amazons and falls in love with the beautiful daughter (Kensit) of his wealthy patron. The two marry, but a shocking family secret gets in the way of happily ever after. Besides the jaw-droppingly beautiful costumes intended to replicate the colours and shapes of insects and butterflies, this smart and sophisticated period piece posits human behaviour as animal instinct, and observes it as if under a microscope. Throughout the film Rylance’s face does so little and yet it expresses so much - from the pure astonishment and joy of love, to fury at its betrayal, from intellectual sophistication to beastly urgency. Rylance shares one of sexiest non-sex scenes of all time with governess and partner in science Matty (Kristin Scott Thomas) as he confesses his love for her in the dark: “I have seen your wrists”.

Intimacy (2001)


Adapted from Hanif Kureishi’s novel of the same title, Intimacy was directed by the late French filmmaker, theatre and opera director Patrice Chéreau, and caused a sensation at the time of its very limited release because of the explicit nature of its barely acted sex scenes. After initially offering a minor role in the film, Chéreau changed his mind once he saw Rylance's head-turning performance as Cleopatra (in an all-male production at Shakespeare’s Globe) and cast him as the lead, divorcee Jay. Riffing on Last Tango in Paris, this South London set drama (shot largely in a now unrecognisable New Cross), revolves around a sad couple, a divorced man and a married woman (Kerry Fox, the star of Jane Campion's An Angel At My Table) who meet every Wednesday afternoon for sex in his downtrodden basement flat. They never agree that they will meet again (in fact they barely speak), and yet they carry on this strange love affair - until Jay’s desire for intimacy gets in the way. A brutally honest and raw performance, Rylance’s finest work here is in tense scenes where Jay’s anger and despair prevent him from engaging with love and revealing his own vulnerability. Besides the bruising take on relationships and fidelity, Intimacy also has an amazing indie music soundtrack with tunes by Tindersticks, David Bowie, Eyeless in Gaza, Nick Cave and Iggy Pop. 

The Government Inspector (2005)


(No relation to the play by Nikolai Gogol.)

Rylance has long been involved in pacifist activism publicly supporting organisations such as Peace Direct and the Stop the War Coalition, so if on the one hand his participation in this powerful Channel 4 drama about the Weapons of Mass Destruction dossier that led to the Iraq War - a damning account of the politics of those days - was not surprising, his performance as U.N. weapons and biological warfare expert Dr David Kelly was unlike anything he’d ever done before. Working with screenwriter and director Peter Kosminsky (who would later give Rylance another one of his most iconic screen roles as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall), they utilised verbatim dialogue from dossiers, reports and depositions, and grounded the character of Kelly in fact - but the layering of emotion and motivation is pure actorly genius. Playing older and physically changing his appearance and demeanour, Rylance’s portrayed Dr Kelly as a highly moral man whose intention was as far as possible from being turned into an invasion apologist by the Blair government. Eschewing easy conspiracy theories about Kelly's tragic end, Rylance hooks into the inevitable consequences of professional traducing experienced as personal defeat. He also relishes the display of Kelly's detailed understanding of Iraq as well as deep passion and respect for Middle Eastern culture (not something that was so popular at the time). Understated and economic, Rylance finds immense power in stillness and silence - both building blocks for the performance that won him the Oscar as Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies.

As Johnny "Rooster" Byron in  Jerusalem

As Johnny "Rooster" Byron in Jerusalem

No room to mention The BFG here, of course, but if anything that was a perfect audition for the film version of Jerusalem. Sam Mendes, Jez Butterworth: we sure hope you're reading.