There’s no mistaking Steve Coogan’s flair for the dramatic. Though initially best known as a comedian, theatricality is peppered throughout even his most overtly comic performances; consider Alan Partridge thundering down the microphone or throwing his ego around off-air, or Tommy Saxondale waxing lyrical about band tours and pest control, or Coogan satirising himself in the now three-strong The Trip television and film series. Beneath every moment of humour in these comic turns lurks an often amusingly overstated, but sometimes quiet and nuanced dramatic undercurrent.
Indeed, for fans of The Trip series, it has become part of the on-screen story. It’s little wonder; as well as fictionalising his public persona in the 2010 film and its sequels (opposite co-star/writer Rob Brydon), Coogan has also been diving deeper into more serious films and roles. Accordingly, amidst scenic sights, mouth-watering plates of food and stellar impersonations of Michael Caine, Al Pacino, Roger Moore, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and more, The Trip movies have equally reflected on and parodied his jaunts into less hilarity-fuelled territory. When The Trip to Spain leans heavily upon Coogan’s success with 2013's Philomena, it’s a wry case of art equally recognising and playing with life — “he’ll be somewhere talking to a nun and asking if she’s heard of Judi Dench,” Brydon remarks when asked about his travelling partner’s whereabouts.
While it’s easy to laugh when The Trip’s version of Coogan asks his agent and manager for more substantial parts, mopes when he doesn’t get them, and incessantly namedrops his BAFTA win and Oscar nomination for co-writing Philomena’s screenplay to anyone who’ll listen, coupled with the film’s good-natured ribbing is an acknowledgement of Coogan’s growing dramatic prowess. The exaggerated Coogan might talk about Philomena with both arrogance and desperation, stemming from both the praise it brought his way and from the fact that it didn’t open as many doors as he might’ve hoped, but it’s impossible to fault his assertion that he should add more weighty parts to his resume.
It was 24 Hour Party People that initially helped Coogan scratch the dramatic itch in a substantial way, while also leaning on his comic charms. His first collaboration with Trip director Michael Winterbottom, it offered a blend of the expected and the new — aka the hilarious and the serious — that saw Coogan find a fitting niche. Just as his laugh-inspiring roles frequently centre on self-absorbed characters, so too did his turn as Manchester record label owner Tony Wilson, a pattern that would follow in his subsequent pairings with the director. Both Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story and The Trip trilogy may be deemed comedies, but they each give Coogan room to expose the far-reaching, not-always-funny depths of his haughty, fictionalised self. Later, the 2013 biopic The Look of Love proved more overtly dramatic in telling the tale of English club baron Paul Raymond, combining the actor’s theatrical charisma with the real-life figure’s determined presence.
Arguably the role that first provided a glimpse of Coogan embracing his penchant for on-screen self-importance without amusement was 2012’s What Maisie Knew. Playing one of two neglectful parents too involved in their own careers and dramas to appreciate or properly care for their six-year-old daughter, there’s little to like about his character, but much to enjoy about his performance. As his international art dealer bristles within in the narrative, overlooking Maisie and constantly arguing with his rock star wife (Julianne Moore), Coogan showcases some of the worst traits he’s brought to life on screen, while also showing why this yearning child would still love him. His work-focused dad proves a swirl of suave insincerity; however, discomfort and tension springs not from easy characterisation, but from watching a realistic figure in a realistic situation — making this film’s tale all the more heartbreaking, and his efforts all the more impressive.
Consequently, what viewers came to know was Coogan’s dexterity with arrogance, even if he appeared to inhabit the same kinds of role he was already known for. Puffed up egos come in different shapes, and he tried new, non-comic ones on for size. And while he continues to do just that in some parts, it was Philomena that most drastically helped change perceptions of his abilities once again, in what may still be his career-best performance. After mining variations of familiar figures for drama, he demonstrated that he was just as adept at bringing measured subtlety to more relatable characters.
There’s an everyman tenor to Coogan’s journalist in Philomena — cynical about his trip with Dench’s titular mother, who’s searching for the son she was forced to give up decades early, yet still remaining empathetic to her situation — that strikes a chord. At the time, it also struck audiences as quite the departure from his usual work, and understandably so. As real-life writer Martin Sixsmith, his initially wary facade crumbles as the unlikely duo embark upon their fact-and-person-finding mission, but it’s never replaced with pomposity or self-interest. It’s easy to see how he could’ve played the part by sticking to type, but instead, Coogan offers up a portrait of a man helping himself and someone else that’s textured in its emotion, and multi-layered in its insights about human nature. It’s also not difficult to see that if he hadn’t been Philomena’s driving force, optioning the story and giving himself the role, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity.
In his next dramatic effort, Coogan takes a seat in The Dinner, playing the less-successful brother of Richard Gere’s politician, and confronting several generations of family tensions during an evening meal with their respective wives (Rebecca Hall and Laura Linney). He’s in more vulnerable territory in this largely conversation-based film, fleshing out his character’s long-existing troubles while dealing with a new crisis, and displays yet another side of his acting skills as a result. Indeed, while there are many arguments for giving Coogan meatier work — his deft way of turning his comic archetypes into serious parts, his Philomena prowess, and the many actual arguments he makes for the case in The Trip to Spain, to name a few — it’s his growing versatility that remains the strongest. Three decades into his career, the noted comedian keeps throwing surprises viewers’ way. That dramatic flair isn’t going anywhere.
Philomena plays on SBS this Friday at 8:35pm. The Trip to Spain is currently in cinemas.
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