It can be tempting to put actors in a box: Mark Ruffalo is the face of Justice itself (Spotlight, Dark Waters); Julia Roberts represents smart, beautiful, and unjustly treated women everywhere (Pretty Woman, Erin Brockovich). Such distinctions can be useful and justified, since Hollywood does make people into stars by using their faces as icons: a close-up on Tom Cruise objectifies his features to grant them signifying power (in Cruise’s case, the message is almost always “don’t worry, I am too smart to die jumping off this building”). An actor’s oeuvre forms, if not a clear narrative, then at least a collection of motifs that a director (or, rather, a casting director) can pick and choose to use in her own project; casting Liam Neeson to play a loving husband in Widows, a kind of role he had taken up so many times before, was a brilliant trick to make his character’s betrayal of his wife all the more shocking.
But putting actors in boxes doesn’t let them run free and explore the rich world of human emotion. Sometimes, you have to embrace the mystery. Charlize Theron’s turn as a serial killer in Monster didn’t fit with her previous roles as damsels in distress, but that’s the part that earned her the most respect. Good actors are often excited by the challenge of playing someone completely unlike them or the characters they’ve already interpreted.
Florence Pugh is a really, really good actress. Although her career is still in its early days—she is 23 and her first role, in Carol Morley’s The Falling, dates from 2014—she has consistently demonstrated a boundless curiosity about her craft. 2019 has been especially good for her (and spectators) with roles requiring her to suffer grief, horror, and heartbreak in Sweden; wrestling moves in Los Angeles; and misogyny in 19th-century American society. Pugh’s type, if one had to characterize it, would be “authentic, honest, and bold woman,” a description that is very open to interpretation and leaves her plenty of as yet unexplored routes to embark on.
The Falling is a real British curio, full of fainting spells, oppressed school girls, and difficult mothers. Pugh was nominated at the London Film Festival for her performance as Abbie, a popular girl whose sexual maturity and recklessness fascinate her friend Lydia (Maisie Williams), but who meets a tragic end. The actor radiates a natural confidence that casts a spell on the audience too; essentially, Pugh makes the film work. Although Abbie leaves the frame early, her aura continues to influence Lydia and the entire school in increasingly disturbing ways. In her first feature film role, Pugh was already made into an idol.
Yet recognition didn’t arrive straight away. It was after two years of small roles on British TV that Pugh finally had her big breakthrough in the shape of another British drama, albeit quite a different one from The Falling. Lady Macbeth, directed by renowned theatre director and first-time feature filmmaker William Oldroyd, gave Pugh a challenging role in a perfectly crafted and modern period piece. Based not on Shakespeare’s work but on Nikolai Leskov’s novella “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” this BAFTA-, London Film Festival– and TIFF-nominated film centers on Katherine, a young woman forced into an unhappy, sexless, and soon long-distance marriage. She then finds refuge in the strong arms of one of her workers and plans a Thérèse Raquin–esque coup to be with him. What makes Lady Macbeth an altogether unique beast, however, is the degree of realism it aims for and attains, thanks largely to Pugh’s attuned and uncompromising performance. It seems as though Katherine just happens to be living in the 19th century; her behavior, while shaped by the misogynistic etiquette and traditions of the time, translates the needs, desires, and frustrations of any oppressed woman from any era. There’s no room for “it was a different time” justifications here. Pugh adapts her speech and posture to the character’s circumstances without ever going into parody, even retaining a slight touch of modernity that, in retrospect, comes probably closer to the social reality of the time than how most period films would have it. It helps that Katherine is herself a rebel, but even in moments when she fools others into thinking that she is following convention, Pugh delivers her lines with such clear intent and ease that Katherine always seems like a real, complete, complex person. Oldroyd’s thoughtful direction is essentially at her service, emphasizing with stifling compositions and an occasionally handheld camera the disconnect between Pugh’s raw energy and the static, constraining walls that imprison Katherine. Oldroyd and Pugh don’t try to defend Katherine’s increasingly indefensible actions, but together, they make this not fully likable character captivating and unquestionably affecting.
After much deserved acclaim for Lady Macbeth, Pugh returned in 2018 with plenty of projects ready to launch her further on the international film scene. Jaume Collet-Serra’s fourth collaboration with Liam Neeson, The Commuter, wasn’t his best one, and didn’t give Pugh much to do as one of several passengers accompanying Neeson on his hell ride, yet it did show the actress adorning a very different look and attitude: black eyeliner and purple hair highlights turned her into a genuine goth, far from Lady Katherine’s respectable dresses. With her idiosyncratic low voice—Greta Gerwig rightly compared it to Lauren Bacall’s velvety tones on the New Yorker Radio Hour—Pugh fits the bill of the angry, pseudo-mature teenager just as well, a type that she later revisited in Stephen Merchant’s true wrestling story Fighting With my Family.
Before getting her into the ring, however, Pugh’s 2018 saw her marrying the King of Scots himself in David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King. The part of Elizabeth Burgh in this war epic is as big as it sounds, but it puts Pugh in a place of vulnerability that she navigates with rare honesty. Mackenzie’s greatest achievement here is arguably the degree of realism with which he depicts every sword or arrow wound, and when Elizabeth is forced to witness the impossibly gruesome murder of a kind Scottish protector, her horror and tears are almost equally as hard to bear. Pugh’s other 2018 Netflix-released film, the (this time) unforgivably nasty horror film Malevolent, also used the actress’s particular gift for communicating genuine fear and horror. Her profound voice is here modulated into a spotless and truly believable American accent as she plays Angela, a young woman who realizes too late that she is a real ghostbuster and not a con artist. Trapped in a haunted mansion (and a terrible film), Pugh effortlessly proves her talent: She needn’t do any horror theatrics to captivate, instead letting Angela’s dread reveal itself in subtle, natural expressions.
If one project (so far) has truly understood what makes Pugh so compelling, it may well be Park Chan-Wook’s John le Carré miniseries adaptation, The Little Drummer Girl. Pugh plays Charlie, a British actress in late-1970s London who is so talented and smart that she gets recruited by the Israelis to infiltrate the Palestinian side. Her life depends on how believable she can be while lying, and Pugh has to turn in a double- then perhaps triple-performance, when she returns to the Israelis with her loyalty now hard to place. She doesn’t disappoint, even if the show itself isn’t always as convincing. Here again, Pugh is both strong and sensitive as Charlie looks for purpose in all the dangerous places and falls for both an Israeli agent and, later, a Palestinian leader: Acting, after all, starts with being able to empathize with people very different from you.
But sometimes, acting also means training as a wrestler for a sports biopic. Fighting With My Family tells the story of Saraya “Paige” Knight, a young woman who, from humble beginnings in Norwich, U.K., became the youngest World Wrestling Entertainment diva champion ever at age 21. Pugh does the most to make this straightforward story interesting by accentuating the self-doubt that riddled Paige as she joined the professional training ranks of the WWE. The actress’s willingness to seem first mean and judgmental, and then embarrassed and awkward as Paige criticizes the ex-models who, like her, simply dream of a better life, make this otherwise syrupy film occasionally interesting—and confirm Pugh as capable of greater emotional complexity than most scripts tend to allow.
Midsommar is perhaps more emotionally extreme than it is complex, but it does begin with more subdued moments. These are the film’s most affecting scenes, before Pugh’s Dani, her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), and his friends even leave for Sweden to attend the Midsommar celebrations. Dani is seen on the phone with Christian, seeking reassurance as she hasn’t managed to reach her troubled sister, then she phones a friend to discuss her sense of guilt for making Christian bear with her problems. Pugh carries these casual yet intimate moments all on her own, alone in a room, her face becoming the stage where the story of Dani’s relationship with both her family and her boyfriend become visible, more through her spontaneous behavior than her words. Once again, less is more—and it is too when director Ari Aster reaches ever-higher peaks of horror later on.
The film’s first shock is in its title sequence, when Dani learns that her sister killed her parents and took her own life. Cradled in the arms of dumbfounded Christian, she doesn’t weep as much as scream, as though her pain were both mental and physical. It isn’t an exaggerated reaction and certainly not a polished, self-conscious one; Pugh takes her character too seriously to deny her some genuine trauma. Echoing this moment is the film’s most iconic scene, when Dani, now crowned May Queen, discovers Christian’s infidelity and has an intense crying fit. Although it has been argued that the film’s “true meaning” is vague, this moment, however bizarre, is comprehensible and touching, thanks to Pugh: Dani notices the disparity between Christian’s careless treatment of her and the love that the cult members have showered her with. Her fit turns into an exorcism, with Swedish women gathering around Dani to better help her cry and finally confront how abandoned and mournful she has been feeling since losing her family and having to rely on disinterested Christian. Pugh collapses on the ground and holds on tightly to the women, like one would grasp her mother’s legs to find refuge; she stays connected to the other actors throughout, never letting her distress overwhelm her and take her out of the scene. As the women emulate her desperation, she responds to them with more tears, in a seemingly endless loop of cathartic heartbreak that, delightfully if disturbingly, feels more like watching people being themselves and doing trust exercises than playing characters.
Florence Pugh brings her entire person to her roles and seeks out parts that prick at the most sensitive parts of hers and everyone’s self: inconsolable grief, frustration with the world, lack of confidence, and loneliness. I haven’t yet seen her as Amy March in Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation, but that character is known for her allegedly unattractive stubbornness, tied to a sad yet empowering pragmatism about the place of women in society—a personality that, again, requires Pugh to dare be unlikable. She’s also starring alongside Scarlett Johansson in the upcoming film Black Widow, thus entering officially into the superhero movie sphere with a seemingly convincing Russian accent and some newly acquired fighting skills. There’s no telling where Pugh’s rapidly blossoming career will take her, but there’s hope she will continue to explore the furthest and darkest reminisces of the human experience through her authentic acting, as well as gain the critical and popular acclaim she has been deserving for some years now.
Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.