With her first film role, Rachel Griffiths became a star. With her first American television series, she became a part of TV drama’s current golden age. With her first scene in SBS’s new drama Dead Lucky, she tries to convince an anger management therapist that a simple blue pen means something significant — and in each of these three situations, Griffiths’ distinctive talents shine from the screen.
Initially making a splash in Muriel’s Wedding, then hopping overseas for the likes of Six Feet Under and Brothers & Sisters, before returning home to star in shows such as Barracuda and now Dead Lucky, Griffiths embodies a contradiction. Her performances come with an uncompromising sense of force, but she’s also a vastly understated actor. She’s often quiet, yet always raw. Viewers feel her presence instantly; however the full power of her textured portrayals takes time to evolve. As Detective Senior Sergeant Grace Gibbs in Dead Lucky, her character’s sorrow and defiance bubbles behind her attempt to contend that a mere biro is an object of importance, with those emotions evolving and deepening over the course of the series’ first episode.
It’s a trademark that fans of one of Australia’s most iconic comedies will be well aware of. As Rhonda Epinstalk, the seemingly self-assured livewire that teaches Muriel Heslop (Toni Colette) how to be herself, Griffiths is a portrait of slow-building complexity. Muriel’s name might adorn the film’s title, but Muriel’s Wedding is as shaped by Rhonda as it is by Porpoise Spit’s ABBA-loving outcast. In her first Australian Film Institute award-winning role, Griffiths perfects the character’s journey from pluck, verve and determination to anger, sadness and resentment and then back again. It’s a confident and commanding turn for any actor, let alone one with just four on-screen credits to her name (in the form of TV sketch comedies Fast Forward and Jimeoin, TV movie The Feds and spy series Secrets) at the time.
If Muriel’s Wedding brought Griffiths to attention, then amassing another 12 film roles in the next six years kept her in the spotlight. Some were local and smaller, such as Cosi, Children of the Revolution and To Have and Have Not. Others built her international portfolio, including Jude and My Best Friend’s Wedding. There was only one Hilary and Jackie, though — only one performance that earned Griffiths an Academy Award nomination for best actress in a supporting role, and only one film that gave her the space to unpack a close, difficult sibling relationship. It’s here that Griffiths’ restraint gets perhaps its best outing, conveying not only Hilary du Pré’s inner turmoil, but her ability to discern her cellist sister’s every mood and need, often only in a look.
A meaty, weighty, long-term character study proved Griffiths’ next major accomplishment, on Six Feet Under across its five-season run. In a show quickly, rightfully and still renowned for its complicated portrayals, Griffiths’ Brenda — girlfriend to series protagonist Nate Fisher (Peter Krause), who’s forced to take on his father’s funeral home business upon his dad’s sudden death — couldn’t be more multifaceted. Before championing women who didn’t have it all together became a common television occurrence, Brenda was strong yet flawed, relatable yet not always likeable, and troubled yet driven. A Golden Globe, three other nominations and four Emmy nods all speak to the resonance of her performance, although any time that Griffiths locks eyes on Krause achieves the same impact.
After Six Feet Under finished, Griffiths swiftly jumped over to family-focused US TV drama Brothers & Sisters; however her best work during the late 2000s and early 2010s arguably stemmed from one of her returns home. Griffiths made Australian features throughout her tenure overseas — The Hard Word, Ned Kelly and Burning Man, as well as TV movie After the Deluge — but there’s an air about her portrayal in Beautiful Kate, of regret and weariness, that epitomises the film’s tone. She’s just one aspect that makes Rachel Ward’s acclaimed film so affecting, alongside Ben Mendelsohn and Sophie Lowe, as well as Ward’s measured direction. That said, Beautiful Kate firmly offers a reminder that Griffiths always makes her presence felt, even with limited screen time.
In recent years, a little bit of everything has found its way onto the actor’s slate. In When We Rise, US-Australian co-produced TV series Camp, Disney effort Saving Mr Banks and the forthcoming film The King’s Daughter, Griffiths kept a foot in the international industry while basing herself back in Australia. In the Patrick remake, as well as Hacksaw Ridge, The Osiris Child and Don’t Tell, she added homegrown genre efforts, war epics and topical dramas to her resume. After directing three episodes of Nowhere Boys, Griffiths is currently working on her feature filmmaking debut Ride Like a Girl, about the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup. Afterwards, she’ll star as Julia Gillard in TV movie Stalking Julia.
Making the rounds of the international film festival circuit in 2016, contemplative Irish film Mammal stands out of late — a drama that, while completely unlike anything else Griffiths has done across her career, couldn’t illustrate her appeal more. Playing a woman who’s withholding her grief for the son she long-ago gave up, all while giving a wayward teenager (Barry Keoughan) around his same age a room, it’s the kind of showcase that the actor hasn’t enjoyed on the big screen in recent times. Nothing about Griffiths’ Margaret inspires a simple description. Not once do the character’s emotions remain static, even though her reluctance to face her pain never fades. It’s the very definition of powerful yet understated, and it’s yet more evidence that Griffiths is one of Australia’s best screen talents.
With Dead Lucky, her prowess only grows.
You can watch Dead Lucky every Wednesday night on SBS at 9:30pm, with episodes also available to stream anytime at SBS On Demand: