A Lesson in Determination: A Carey Mulligan Retrospective

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At the age of 35, Carey Mulligan’s career has hit a wonderful stride. Beginning in 2005 with her role as Kitty Bennet in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, her filmography is an impressive collection of genres, directors, and characters. For Doctor Who fans, she stood out in the 2007 episode “Blink” as the likable and courageous Sally Sparrow. Fans of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive will remember her as Irene, the young woman that Ryan Gosling falls for. Even in her supporting roles, she brings a quiet uniqueness that never fails to shine through. Despite how much that trait enhances all of her performances, she’s had to fight harder for roles seemingly outside of her wheelhouse. Below is a collection of films that showcase her ability to go after parts she knows she’s right for and, without fail, follows through with an incredible and nuanced portrayal every time.

 

Shame (2011)

Having come out the same year as Drive, Carey Mulligan shows a side of herself in Shame that’s not on display in Nicolas Winding Refn’s film. Despite both being supporting roles alongside two prominent male actors, the characters couldn’t be more different. In Steve McQueen’s drama about a sex addict (played by Michael Fassbender), Mulligan plays Sissy, the main character’s extroverted sister. The relationship between Sissy and Fassbender’s Brandon is the heart of the movie. Living a seemingly ideal existence in New York City, Brandon’s life begins to unravel when his sister comes into town insisting that she stays with him for a few days. Despite him caring about Sissy deeply, her presence begins to ruin a façade that he’s so carefully cultivated for himself to hide his darkest impulses, mainly his sex addiction. The energy that Sissy brings into Brandon’s life is too much for him to handle that he begins to fall apart. Mulligan embodies Sissy fully, bringing to life a young woman with an explosive personality and self-destructive tendencies. Mulligan and Fassbender have an electric chemistry, their scenes together being some of the best parts of the film.

It’s clear that Mulligan was aware of what the role called for: absolute openness, vulnerability, and no holding back. According to Mulligan, she heavily persuaded Steve McQueen to give her the part when the two of them met to discuss her possible involvement in the film. McQueen was apparently reluctant at first but eventually gave in, and good thing he did. Shame was Mulligan’s first real opportunity to showcase her versatility in a high-profile film, and she didn’t squander it.

 

Promising Young Woman (2020)

It should be no surprise to find this film in this retrospective, what with Mulligan recently receiving several nominations for her performance, including an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. While Promising Young Woman itself has sparked much divisive discussion both on and offline, it’s widely agreed that Mulligan’s portrayal of Cassie is expert and worthy of praise. We’ve never really seen Mulligan in this territory before. The closest role that comes to mind is Shame where she plays a more outgoing and yet still complex character. It’s obvious in her performance how much she understands Cassie and is fully committed to bringing her to life believably and honestly. She doesn’t let the bright and colorful costume design define her character. On the contrary, her vibrant exterior is there to disguise the deep sadness that Cassie has felt ever since medical school after her best friend, Nina, was sexually assaulted. Mulligan beautifully captures Cassie’s tormented soul, mostly in subtle ways that add to the intensity of certain scenes, such as Cassie’s exchange with Connie Britton’s character, the dean of the medical school that she and Nina attended. With or without the award nominations, Mulligan has once again proven herself as a chameleon.

 

An Education (2009)

Marking Carey Mulligan’s first Oscar nomination, An Education played a big part in launching her further into the spotlight. Directed by Lone Scherfig (One Day, The Riot Club) and based on the memoir by Lynn Barber, An Education follows Jenny (Mulligan), a 16-year-old prep school student with her sights set on Oxford. Well, at least that’s what her parents have planned for her. Jenny, on the other hand, isn’t too enthusiastic about the idea but has no intention of altering her parents’ wishes until she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a seemingly wealthy man-about-town who is twice her age. They form a friendly relationship that turns romantic over the course of the film, and despite being bright for her young age, she quickly learns the harsh realities of trying to grow up too fast. As one of Mulligan’s first leading roles, she brings a charming vibrancy and youthful excitement to Jenny. Despite playing a 16-year-old at the age of 22, Mulligan is able to blend youth and maturity together seamlessly, a staple of her career. Her outstanding work in An Education gave her the clout and confidence to fight for roles that would help her grow as an actor and hone her incredible talent.

 

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

At this point in Carey Mulligan’s career, she had never really played a “mean” character. Sure, she had a chance to show off her more brash, outgoing side in Shame and in An Education her character, while young, speaks her mind frequently throughout the film. In Inside Llewyn Davis, however, her character speaks her mind in the harshest way possible. Part of the reason why the Coen brothers picked her for the part of Jean, a friend of Llewyn’s, is because they liked the idea of Mulligan saying a bunch of swear words since she hadn’t had a chance to play a part like that yet. The role appealed greatly to Mulligan, especially since she had just made The Great Gatsby and was looking for something quite different. Well, she got that and then some. Acting opposite Oscar Isaac, who was just about to become a bigger name thanks to this movie, Mulligan lays into each nasty line of dialogue her character speaks to Llewyn with a biting conviction. Despite knowing how difficult it will be, she continues to go after parts that will challenge her, which is why she’s become such a sought-after performer.

 

Never Let Me Go (2010)

While Mulligan’s performance in An Education was considered her big break, her part in Mark Romanek’s film Never Let Me Go, which came out a year after, is an even more noteworthy performance. Based on the acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and adapted by Alex Garland, the film is a heartbreaking tale about a group of friends who must live out and accept their existence as clones. Mulligan, a fan of the novel, had always wanted to play the main character, Kathy, if a film adaptation was ever made. Mulligan proves time and time again how versatile she is, but in Never Let Me Go, she proves how far she can go emotionally without ever coming off as inauthentic. Her natural subtlety is perfect for the role of Kathy, and even though there is the occasional voiceover, it never feels like it’s making up for any lack of being able to convey deep emotion on Mulligan’s part. Her clear understanding of the novel contributes to her excellent performance, but her genuine authenticity is what makes this portrayal so meaningful and heartfelt. While all of her performances showcase elements of her expert acting ability, her portrayal in Never Let Me Go is the ultimate culmination of her whole talent, making it one of the biggest highlights of her career.

Sarah Lord

Sarah Lord

Sarah is a film writer from Brooklyn, New York, and has been with FilmHounds since August 2020. She's been a movie lover since childhood, which motivated her to graduate college with a BA in Film and Screen Studies. Her tastes in movies varies wildly, and she is more than happy to talk to you about Michael Shannon's entire filmography for hours on end.

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