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The Year Jamie Dornan Leveled Up

After ‘Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar’ and ‘Belfast,’ the former Christian Grey is must-watch

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Last month, British GQ ran a lengthy interview with Jamie Dornan, wherein several paragraphs were devoted to the actor’s thoughts on how the Fifty Shades films had impacted his career. After all, that was the Northern Irish heartthrob’s starmaking vehicle, one that elevated him from former model and TV actor to genuine movie star.

That trilogy drifted memorably into the center of a perilous cultural Venn diagram: movies that lots of people saw and critics almost universally hated. Said Dornan: “It’s done no harm to my career to be part of a movie franchise that has made more than $1 billion.” But the franchise also won him a Golden Raspberry for Worst Actor, and put on global display his overpowering weariness with the project. It could forever have consigned him to being just the latest handsome Commonwealth actor to put on an American accent, bomb in a starring role, and head back to the world of Masterpiece Theatre and BBC cop shows, forgotten by Hollywood in five years.

But while the line about the $1 billion franchise turned into a pull quote, that’s not the most interesting thing he said. “Whether A Private War, Anthropoid, or Belfast, or whatever comes next, the line in the press is always, ‘It’s the best thing he’s done since Fifty Shades,’” Dornan told GQ. “As if I am still needing to prove myself; I am still paying penance for that choice to get me back to where I was beforehand. Look, I get it, and, to be honest with you, it spurs me on. It lights a fire in me. If that means people saying, ‘Oh, actually he’s not that bad,’ well, so be it.”

So, with deep and sincere apologies to Dornan, I’m going to do the exact thing he complained about. Because anyone who wrote him off as the anthropomorphic torso from the S&M movies should check back in—he’s on a hot streak right now. Even a casual glance into Dornan’s non–Fifty Shades career reveals a gifted, nuanced actor with genuine comedic chops. This is who he’s been all along; the big monkey’s paw of a franchise is just far enough in the past now that it’s easier to notice.

When Dornan got cast as Christian Grey, the first season of The Fall had just aired on British and Irish TV. Dornan played Paul Spector, a therapist and family man by day and a serial rapist and murderer who has Belfast on edge by night. Dornan didn’t have an easy job; he was tasked with holding down half of a cops-and-killers show with no less a costar than Gillian Anderson on the other end of the teeter-totter. Paul, in contrast to other famous fictional serial killers, was a laconic, mysterious figure who spent much of his screen time lurking and listening. There were no monologues about liver, beans, and wine for Dornan to chew on; he had to get the job done with subtle gestures and hushed line readings. But he delivered, and was rewarded with a BAFTA nomination for his trouble.

From there, in between Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker, Dornan starred in a pair of 2016 films about last stands. One, The Siege of Jadotville, features Dornan as the commander of a U.N. peacekeeping force who find themselves surrounded, outnumbered, and cut off from retreat, reinforcement, or resupply during the 1961 Congo crisis. Dornan—sporting an impressive Freddie Mercury mustache for the role—delivers a compelling performance in a forgettable movie that fizzles out. Anthropoid is more memorable. Dornan and Cillian Murphy play Czechoslovakian World War II commandos who drop in behind enemy lines on a mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi potentate and architect of the Final Solution. When they succeed, the film depicts in brutal, unflinching terms the Nazi response: torture, mass executions, and a climactic shootout in a Prague church. Anthropoid avoids the mistake many World War II movies make of portraying the Nazis as merely the opposing team, toning down the brutality and barbarism for a more popcorn-friendly tone. Instead, Anthropoid makes Saving Private Ryan look like Moana; it might be the best movie Dornan’s ever made, and having seen it once I’ll probably never watch it again.

During the Fifty Shades run, Dornan would periodically put down Christian Grey’s whips for a starring role in a depressing and violent work, but since he’s been liberated he’s taken on an interesting series of challenges. In many respects, Dornan’s career is reminiscent of Daniel Radcliffe’s. Like Dornan, Radcliffe knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that his first big role will define his career no matter what he does. Freed from the expectations of embodying a popular character, he’s taken on a series of interesting smaller and independent projects: Swiss Army Man, Guns Akimbo, Imperium, and so on. For Dorman, his post-franchise run has taken on a lighter tone than his previous era of work; in fact, he’s had a musical number in each of his past three movie credits: Wild Mountain Thyme, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, and Belfast.

Just in the past year, we’ve seen Dornan put the whole package together: the smoldering intensity that made him a sex symbol, but also a gift for comedy that might not come through in The Fall or Anthropoid, but made him a fixture on Graham Norton’s couch. Dornan is by no means the standout performer of Belfast; come award season he’ll probably take a backseat to costar Caitriona Balfe and a thunderous Ciaran Hinds. But as the loving and principled but somewhat unreliable paterfamilias, Dornan absolutely clicks in Kenneth Branagh’s memoiristic film. He was miscast as the romantic bachelor, but born to play the sexy dad. He’s still magnetic when he needs to be—see the “Everlasting Love” scene for evidence this is still a professional hot guy—but Dornan’s shockingly easy to buy as a paternal figure, the perfect blend of fierce protectiveness and silly self-deprecation that everyone wants from a dad.

That sense of humor comes through in Wild Mountain Thyme as well. There’s no redeeming the movie as a whole, being as it is a ludicrous amalgam of confused accents and kitschy stereotypes and features one of the most bizarre plot twists ever committed to film, a contrivance that’s all the more confusing because it has zero impact on the plot of the film—but Dornan does his best, and manages to get more than a few laughs with slapstick gags and Halpertian facial reactions.

But he may have reached his apotheosis in between the releases of Thyme and Belfast, as a lovesick henchman in Barb and Star. Dornan mostly plays an able comedic straight man—though the over-the-top silliness of Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo, and Damon Wayans Jr., in that film would make anyone look like a straight man by comparison—but he more than holds his own. And though he plays neither Barb nor Star, he gets his big moment with “Edgar’s Prayer,” a Lonely Island song nested inside this latter-day Austin Powers movie.

Look at him mugging for the camera and kicking his legs in the sand. That’s not the cardboard cutout he was dismissed as after the Fifty Shades movies, or the stewing, austere figure from The Fall. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that actors like Brad Pitt and Chris Hemsworth started out as nothing more than eye candy, because they went on to show that they’re funny, as well. That’s what Dornan is doing now.

So as 2021 comes to a close, I find myself in an unexpected place: One where if Jamie Dornan’s in a movie, I’m probably going to see it, no matter what it is.