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A Big Name Goes Big Time

Once-anonymous Pete Postlethwaite has nabbed a string of memorable roles since 'In the Name of the Father.' After 'Brassed Off' and Steven Spielberg's 'Lost World' and 'Amistad,' there may be no hiding.

May 18, 1997|David Gritten | David Gritten, based in England, is a frequent contributor to Calendar

LEEDS, England — What a difference an Oscar nomination makes.

Three years ago, a hitherto obscure British actor, rejoicing in the splendid name Pete Postlethwaite, received an Academy Award nod as best supporting actor for "In the Name of the Father," playing Giuseppe Conlon, the upright, almost saintly father of a young Irishman (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) wrongly convicted of a terrorist bombing.

The nomination came out of the blue. For 24 years, Postlethwaite had been unknown in Britain, let alone America; a respected theater actor often cast as a bad guy, he enhanced his income with guest roles on TV dramas. "That nomination," he says gently, "made a difference."

He understates. Since "In the Name of the Father," Postlethwaite has become almost exclusively a film actor, appearing in a dozen movies in the last three years. He has an ability to show up in a few key scenes of a film and walk off with them by stealth, like an expert pickpocket.

Postlethwaite has played the friar who acted as a go-between for the young lovers in "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet." He was the mysterious old man who kick-started the fantasy element of "James and the Giant Peach." Perhaps most memorably he was the enigmatic, fastidious lawyer Kobayashi in "The Usual Suspects," quite unfazed at the prospect of being blown away by a bunch of crooks.

Oh, and along the way he made not one but two Steven Spielberg films in the past year. He has a key role in "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," opening Friday, as a big game hunter on the trail of dinosaurs. And come fall, he will be seen in Spielberg's "Amistad" as a prosecutor in the case of a group of slaves who mutinied aboard a ship transporting them to America.

Postlethwaite, 51, is quietly content about his late-flowering film career. "It wasn't expected," he said. "It's been a bit of a bonus. If I had been 19 years old and what happened to me in the last three years happened then, you'd lose a sense of reality. As it is, I'm settled, I have a lovely, beautifully solid home background. Life is good."

He is a self-effacing, considerate man without a trace of hauteur, but one sees why he was typecast as a heavy. Ruddy, angular and topped by thinning hair, his face, dominated by what may be a broken nose, carries a hint of menace until he smiles. Postlethwaite likes to joke that his career has been in his cheekbones, and he finds it ironic that after a quarter-century playing bad guys, his Oscar nomination came for playing a wholly virtuous man.

*

Yet despite his appearance in a cluster of high-profile movies, only one exercises Postlethwaite's thoughts currently: "Brassed Off" (which also opens Friday), a small British film set in 1992, about a coal mining community in Yorkshire, devastated when the government of Margaret Thatcher shuts down its colliery, citing economic reasons. Its miners are left to face a bleak future without work.

Many British mining villages have their own brass bands, which compete annually in national championships; they symbolize the gritty spirit that holds their communities together. Postlethwaite plays Danny, the conductor of the brass band in Grimley, the fictional village of "Brassed Off"; the band remains his primary passion even while the community around him is threatened by poverty and unemployment.

For a small film, "Brassed Off" (its title, a pun, is local slang meaning "angry") has struck a real chord in Britain since its release late last year. Theories for its success abound. Despite its apparently bleak subject matter, it is funny, moving and heartwarming. It has a cast of excellent British character actors at the top of their form (only Ewan McGregor, who plays a young miner, has any international profile). Its story--about a small community fighting big, bad bureaucrats--has universal appeal. It also coincided with a growing dissatisfaction toward Britain's conservative government, which came to a head this month when Tony Blair's Labor Party routed it in the general election. Lastly, there is the brass band music itself, played by members of the award-winning Grimethorpe Colliery Band--somber and stately, but moving enough to make casual listeners break out in goose bumps.

"It's a wonderful little film with a massive heart," Postlethwaite said. "I've loved it to pieces from the first moment I read the script. 'In the Name of the Father' was the last film I felt like this about."

He notes that writer-director Mark Herman, a Yorkshireman, was intrigued by the devastation of the region's culture brought about by pit closures: "Mark's heart was really in it, and he was left alone (by financiers Miramax and Britain's Channel 4 and Prominent Features) to get on and write it.

"I have never received so many letters from people as I have about 'Brassed Off.' One woman wrote to tell me she'd never known her husband to cry in 35 years of marriage until they went to see this film. But he just sat there and blubbered."

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