Why you should care
She can captivate like a silent-screen star. You deserve to enjoy her acting far more.
In 2002, Natascha McElhone appeared in five different movies. In the 13 years since, she’s been in 10. In that prolific single calendar year, McElhone seemed on the cusp of Hollywood stardom — until a few high-profile box office disappointments slowed her ascent. Among these was a cerebral sci-fi film that drew some raves and some head-scratching among critics, but its spare style provided the richest showcase for McElhone’s underutilized talents to date: Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris.
Soderbergh’s remake of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s prize-winning film pares the nearly three-hour Soviet sci-fi drama down to a scant 99 minutes. Solaris itself is a most alluring conceit: a semi-sentient ocean planet that haunts the scientists studying it on a nearby space station by reflecting their desires back at them in the form of corporeal hallucinations. McElhone stars opposite George Clooney’s Chris Kelvin as his reincarnated wife Rheya. Not quite human yet very much alive, Rheya embodies the alluring, devastating powers of the churning planet below. It’s an inspired casting choice — few actresses of McElhone’s generation evince such a sharp feeling of unreachability.
She exudes a spectrum of emotion with barely more than an inventory of subtle facial expressions.
As in The Truman Show, her most well-known silver screen appearance, she plays an enigmatic love interest who’s perpetually beyond the grasp of her male counterpart. If “otherworldly” seems an obvious description for her Solaris character, it’s also an accurate one: Rheya is familiar yet alien, intimate but unknowable. She has a vague understanding that her current incarnation isn’t “real,” and her gradual realizations that a) the “real” Rheya died, and b) she herself isn’t actually Rheya, are existentially traumatic. She’s not unlike a robot that longs to be human but knows it never can be.
English thespian McElhone has most recently appeared in Showtime’s Californication and in West End theatre productions.
Rumsey Taylor, editor and founder of the dearly departed movie review site Not Coming to a Theater Near You, points out how often the cinematographer’s composition rests on McElhone’s face, and that “each time her face is saying something different. She exudes a spectrum of emotion with barely more than an inventory of subtle facial expressions.” One is reminded of Norma Desmond’s famous summation of the Silent Era in Sunset Boulevard: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” McElhone is a throwback to that breed of performer. She rarely gets as many lines as a talent of her stature deserves, but she emotes so much that she still establishes a unique presence.
Earthbound flashbacks to Chris and Rheya’s courtship, and the troubled circumstances of her death, emphasize her status as a lost, tragic figure. McElhone’s captivating performance should have made her a star, or at least a go-to actress for small but vital roles. But as McElhone herself has pointed out, actresses over the age of 30 are granted a very narrow range of options by the Hollywood studios. Which is more their loss — and ours — than hers.