Carey Mulligan has been in the news for other reasons, but let's talk about how quickly she's made an impressive number of fine movies.
An Oscar front-runner for starring in Emerald Fennell's "Promising Young Woman," Mulligan touched off controversy when she objected to what she saw as a critic's claim she wasn't "hot enough" to play a woman who turns the tables on men who pick her up in bars, thinking they can take advantage of her. That led to an apology from Variety, which published the review, and to a critics' group awkwardly defending their colleague.
Hotness aside, the thing that shouldn't get lost is how extraordinary Mulligan is in the film, and she's been in a lot of them since she made her debut as a whiny teenager in 2005's "Pride and Prejudice." In addition to a bunch of TV, she has made nearly two dozen movies, which may be news to many fans since a lot of those titles barely registered.
Mulligan's taste has not been for blockbusters. Even when she's in a movie that might have a shot at making money — "Drive," opposite Ryan Gosling, in which she humanized that chilly drama — it's odd enough that it misses the (box office) mark.
Directors may be attracted to Mulligan because she's so difficult to pin down: She's now 35 but often plays much younger or older. Her face is elfin but her voice is deeper than you might expect. Her innate irony feels contemporary but she's usually chosen for period roles. She's British but plays a ton of Americans. Her intelligence can read as stubbornness, which may be why she's so often cast as women from the past who are ahead of their time (now on-demand, "Promising Young Woman" is her first contemporary character since "Shame" a decade ago).
Filmmakers capitalize on those qualities in many different ways. Like everyone else, she got lost in the busyness of Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby," but he apparently hoped her spontaneity would help establish a time period that's simultaneously 1920s and 2010s. The stagy melodramatics of post-World War II "Mudbound" found Mulligan bringing truth to the work of another risky director, Dee Rees, who took chances that didn't quite pay off.
They paid off for Mulligan, though. Lots of actors say they seek parts that allow them to stretch, but Mulligan genuinely does something different every time, even if it's small but memorable roles in Joel and Ethan Coen's "Inside Llewyn Davis" or Oliver Stone's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps."
Mulligan is reaching what could be the meatiest years of her career, and the Oscar nomination she'll get on March 15 should ensure more interesting parts (she's already shot Bradley Cooper's writing/directing follow-up to "A Star Is Born"). So here's hoping these seven outstanding performances are only the beginning for this promising young woman.
Mulligan's promise is very much in evidence in the adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's bestseller, smartly reimagined for the screen. Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield play young people trapped in an impossible situation, but watch how Mulligan resists leaning in to tragedy. Her character has little awareness of the fate awaiting her. Far from a self-sacrificing martyr, Mulligan is crabby, unlikable and, adding to the mystery, clearly younger than her character says she is.
Thomas Hardy's novel is a 19th-century soap opera, full of unlikely twists and turns. Thomas Vinterberg's swoony adaptation does full justice to its tale of a woman (Mulligan) who has the temerity to believe she can make her own choices about how to run her farm and which hunky suitor (Tom Sturridge or Matthias Schoenaerts?) to wed.
Mulligan's restraint is the key to Paul Dano's drama about a fractured marriage, viewed from the perspective of the couple's son, who gradually figures out what's happening (Jake Gyllenhaal plays Mulligan's ne'er-do-well husband). That perspective informs Mulligan's tricky performance, which shifts from subtle hints of trouble to Tennessee Williams-level hysteria.
This tear-jerker about a woman who learns her land holds an archaeological treasure had the potential to be one of countless movies that disappear into whatever Netflix landfill that titles end up in when the next week's onslaught becomes available. Mulligan's current notoriety may have helped it gain a foothold, as does a message of warmth and compassion that comes at a good time for movie watchers. It's one of those repressed-emotion slow-burners that Brits are so good at, but Mulligan's humor — from the opening scene, she seems to know a secret joke — makes it feel light and hopeful.
Mulligan earned her only Oscar nomination (so far) as a student who's doing what a young person is supposed to do: make mistakes. It's one of her biggest performances, wildly different from scene to scene, as if to indicate how unsure her character is of her identity.
The rambunctious women in this lively Jane Austen adaptation must have bumped into each other often in casting offices, reading for the same parts (Knightley and Mulligan were born two months apart). As sisters, they and Rosamund Pike create the impression of people who've known, and loved, each other forever.
There was a lot to talk about when Steve McQueen's attention-getting, NC-17 Michael Fassbender joint hit theaters, but even so: How are movie fans not still raving about Mulligan's astonishing rendition of "New York, New York?" It takes a lot to interest me in anyone other than Liza Minnelli singing that song, but Mulligan's heartsick version is a marvel. She's singing all the words and hitting all the notes of that ode to showbiz survival, but it's clear that Mulligan's Sissy is simultaneously singing a very different tune in her head.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367