Michael Patrick Gillespie
Florida International University, USA

Creative Commons 4.0 by Michael Patrick Gillespie. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Mark O’Halloran opened a retrospective of Tom Jordan Murphy’s work at the Irish Film Centre with an affectionate synopsis of the definitive elements of Murphy’s acting abilities, but those seeking an illustration of the power the actor brought to the screen need look no further than the final moments of Adam and Paul, a film in which Murphy played opposite O’Halloran. The concluding scene opens with a close-up of Murphy’s face as he awakens from sleeping rough on Sandymount Strand. It unfolds with no dialogue and abbreviated action. Nonetheless, Murphy brilliantly conveys — through marvelously restrained expression, gesture, and movement — the complex despair and desperation of a heroin addict who slowly realizes that he has lost his only friend to an overdose and that taking the remaining drugs from the dead man’s pocket is more important than anything else in his life. Murphy articulates this existential moment through an understated approach that blends bathos, pathos, and cynicism without engaging in clichéd or even predictable representations to make the point.

While this scene highlights Murphy’s disciplined physicality, a survey of his career show him as equally adept at manipulating the nuances of language. He delivers even the most direct and simple lines with a marvelously precise sense of their meaning. Through a combination of speech and movement Murphy establishes an evocative though not a dominating presence on screen, and his body of work exemplifies the best features of acting in Ireland, even when it appears in vehicles that hardly seem worthy of his talent.

Adam and Paul stands as Murphy’s tour de force, and I will examine it in detail below. At the same time, Murphy’s presence asserts itself in whatever part he takes on, regardless of its importance. That is not to say that he dominates every scene in which he appears. Quite the contrary, he infuses the scene with exactly the presence it requires from the character he is portraying. If the film does not live up to his efforts, that reflects more on it than on him.

Few, if anyone, without experience as an actor could say with precision how Murphy’s training in the theater affected his performances on screen. Nonetheless, it is safe to assume that his extensive practice on stage had a profound impact throughout the pursuit of his profession, beginning when he was twelve playing the Artful Dodger in a production of Oliver! and continuing through his 1998 Tony award winning performance inThe Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Certainly, his career trajectory followed a path familiar to many Irish actors. Given the limited number of opportunities to perform in Ireland, Murphy, like many other prominent actors, spent time both on stage and in front of a camera. However, my concern here is with Murphy’s contribution to Irish cinema.

I think it important to note that Murphy developed as a screen actor in parallel to his stage career. Two early cinematic roles, in The Lost Hour and The Key, show Murphy as a child holding his own playing opposite the very formidable Donal McCann in these two adaptations of works by John McGahern. Each film turns on the delicacy and vulnerability Murphy brings to his performance, but that atmosphere never degenerates into preciousness. Even as a child he shows a wonderful command of his expressions and his gestures, conveying a great deal of his character’s strengths and weaknesses without over emphasis or understatement.

One sees this sense of complexity and balance very clearly in the small parts he plays in films from the mid-90s to the early part of this century. In these roles, Murphy is called upon to represent an attitude rather than portray a complex individual, and the effect of his work shows how completely he understood the task. InMichael Collins (1996), for example, as Vinny Byrne, wise cracking when first told of his role as an assassin and saying a prayer before he shoots a G-man, he conveys the embodiment of innocence caught up and transformed by the violence of the War of Independence. It is Murphy’s restrained style that gives poignancy to Liam Neeson’s line, as Michael Collins, “I put a gun in young Vinny Byrne’s hand.”

Two years later, in The General, Murphy plays a feckless criminal mugging for the camera while Martin Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) nails a man to a pool table. It seems a throwaway performance, with flashes of Jordan’s charisma reminding the viewer what a waste to have him in such a part. Much the same is true of his role as a detective in Mystics, yet whatever the artistic merit of the work, Murphy always conveys the sense that he takes his acting seriously.

One sees this well demonstrated in Brian, the video store manager in Intermission (2003). There, Murphy shows how completely he understands the function of characters in forwarding a narrative. He appears in the scene where Oscar (David Wilmont) has come to the store searching for pornographic films that will counteract his sexual incapacity. Oscar’s desperation stands at the heart of the scene, and Murphy’s representation of a man mildly sympathetic but fundamentally unconcerned with Oscar’s plight, ending by blowing him a kiss, emphasizes without overstatement the bathos that the moment demands.

In none of these motion pictures does Murphy occupy more than a few moments on camera. In none of them does his role do more than underscore the development of another individual. Nonetheless, in all of these films, Murphy succeeds in moving forward the narrative, in supporting the main character, and in clarifying the viewer’s sense of how the film is unfolding. In this fashion both a self-effacing and a profoundly secure ego works to forward the overall cinematic experience. As much as in the larger parts that I will take up below, these performances show the depth of Murphy’s understanding of his function as an actor.

The 2002 film, Boxed, marked his first major cinematic role. The film’s plot sets up a straightforward narrative struggle. Father Brendan (Murphy) is taken to hear the final confession of a suspected IRA informant before the man’s execution. Father Brendan balks at the idea of participating, even indirectly, in the killing, and the film plays out as a struggle of wills with IRA and the priest over what is to be done.

Murphy’s character, in the hands of a lesser actor, could easily succumb to a type or even a stereotype. Clearly, the narrow narrative field of the screenplay gives little apparent room for development. Nonetheless, within the tight scope of a dialogue centered in the present and offering little information of the world outside the small farmhouse where most of the action takes place, Murphy’s craft allows him to add layers of complexity to a seemingly uncomplicated character.

From the start Murphy resists the temptation to equate his role with an easily categorized figure. His Father Brendan is not inherently noble, and indeed not entirely likeable. He is a man with a measure of pride that, as we see in the early scene with his superior Father Moran, enables him to feel comfortable judging others and to consider morality as a black and white issue.

At the same time, Murphy imbues him with all too human frailty. Father Brendan’s fear, once he realizes the situation in which he finds himself, is palpable. His horror at witnessing the violence of which his captors are capable, when they drown an RUC man in a bathtub, is unmistakable. And his self-righteousness when confronting Father Moran whom he feels has been too accommodating to the IRA offers a sense of inflexibility and even fanaticism that suggests, without sacrificing ambiguity, a similarity to the IRA men who hold him captive.

Murphy achieves all of this with the low key approach that characterizes all of his acting. His dialogue, particularly in light of his position at the center of the action, is minimal and often his lines take on the predictable cadence of a man who believes himself correct in any moral situation. At the same time, the wonderful ambivalences that he conveys with his expressions alert viewers to the struggle through which he is going without presenting those feelings in the didactic fashion that speech often imposes. Indeed, the strength of his voice contrasted by the slackness of his body underscores the profound struggle which engages him throughout the film.

In the end Murphy must confront the script’s predictable decision to have the priest die.  Here too he breaks with expectations by drawing multiple and conflicting, if unarticulated, motives into Father Brendan’s behavior. As with all his performances, Murphy does not allow Father Brendan to overwhelm the film, nor does he impose upon the audience a single interpretation of the priest. Instead, he leaves us with a complex figure behaving simply, and invites us to discern the motives behind it all.

Adam and Paul (2004), as I noted at the beginning of this essay, perfectly captures Murphy’s profound effect as an actor. In the role of Paul, which the film’s director, Lenny Abrahamson, described to me as a combination of Stan Laurel and a Yorkshire terrier, Murphy takes an individual circumscribed by addiction and uses those limitations to construct an unforgettable character. Paul manifests the solipsism of dependence with remarkable diversity. Although he spends the day with Adam wandering through Dublin in a single-minded search for drugs, his the variety of his character emerges through dozens of subtle maneuvers. Murphy understands Paul as a figure who has lost interest in anything other than heroin, and yet he is able to define this man in great detail through a series of negations that show what he has renounced: friendship, loyalty, basic dignity, self awareness.

Adam and Paul succeeds in no little part because it shows a gritty assuredness for capturing the life of the underclass, and that comes across in no little part through the way the world acts upon the maddeningly passive Paul. Mark O’Halloran, who wrote the film, gives a marvelous performance as Adam, the straightman to Murphy’s Paul. The humor of the film always enforces the cruel desperation that engulfs the two characters, and it underscores rather than deflects the pointless waste created by their obsession.

Man about a Dog (2004) followed, and, while Murphy had a featured role, the film itself stands as a tired representation of all too familiar slapstick routines. In the role of an addled druggie, Murphy has nothing with which to work. The thinness of the material becomes all the more distressing when one realizes in retrospect how few remaining chances we will have to see Murphy practice his craft.

In contrast, as Shamie in the television series Pure Mule, for which he won the IFTA Best Actor Award in 2005, Murphy shows, as he did in Adam and Paul, how much he can accomplish with a script that rises to his talents. He plays a young man in a small midlands town with a romantic view of sex and an ambivalent relationship with his brother, Scoobie. The two work as laborers on a construction site (with Shamie as the foreman), and do everything else together. Scoobie, the younger, is a chancer who consistently manipulates his brother through simple selfishness. On the weekend of Shamie’s birthday, they have a falling out seemingly over girls but actually over Scoobie’s callousness. With a wonderful sense of pacing, Murphy shows how this confrontation has a cathartic effect upon Shamie. Left to his own, he makes several desultory efforts at physical gratification, and then comes to an uneasy epiphany. Without resolving anything or even suggesting the capacity for the character to change, Murphy shows Shamie accepting what he is without slipping into a cloying melodramatic effect.

Small Engine Repair (2006), a film that does not seem to fully understand itself, squanders another fine performance by Murphy.  He plays a father grieving over the death of a child with minimal dialogue and yet great force in a wonderful combination of language and gesture.  He knows his place in a scene, neither exaggerating nor inhibiting his role. Perhaps it is the knowledge of his impending death that leads me to see his physical decline as emphasizing the despair that his character feels

Jordan has a small part in 48 Angels (2006), appearing at the end as Stevie, a paramilitary man, yet he presents a commanding presence in a profoundly flawed film. In his confrontation with Darry, the gunman on the run, he transforms an otherwise lifeless scene with a range of facial expressions and a simple phrase that puts Darry in a corner. The same is true in the improbably staged action scene that follows when Jordan’s cynical smile conveys more in that moment than the featured actors do throughout the film.

Murphy is both a unique and a familiar figure in Irish film. His presence continually emphasizes the subtle understanding of the roles he was given, showing an ability to enliven the most turgid part without ever distorting its function in the film. At the same time, he stands as emblematic of the kind of actor that reflects the best in contemporary Irish cinematic efforts, one whose training gives him the confidence to engage whatever role comes to him and the discipline to situate himself within it. One cannot review Murphy’s acting career without feeling a deep sense of loss, yet the expanse of his talent remains as source of hope for anyone interested in the future of filmmaking in Ireland.