Julian Sands: a hypnotically exotic actor full of style and extravagance

Julian Sands was the English screen actor who emerged in the 1980s in a generation of floppy-haired, high-cheekboned exquisites that included James Wilby, Rupert Everett, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves, Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Firth. But Sands turned out to be a rarer, stranger and more exotic flower than any of them, virtually impossible to cast as a conventional lead and almost as difficult as a character turn. And this was due to his extraordinarily (and to his fans, hypnotically) eccentric screen presence – distrait, elegant, deadly serious and otherworldly – and that utterly distinctive voice: softly melodious, slightly strangulated, nasal and decelerated; he delivered lines at about 60 to 70% of the speed at which other actors spoke. These were mannerisms that became more pronounced and sometimes baffling as he got older. And yet there was always a charisma in his oddity that gave him a long and busy screen career, particularly in horror and cult movies in which audiences loved him.

I will always remember his breakthrough appearance in the Merchant-Ivory movie A Room With a View, in which he played George Emerson, the innocently honest lover of art from a déclassé background whose unaffected passion captivates Helena Bonham Carter’s Lucy Honeychurch in Florence – and is in sharp distinction to her pretentious, unfeeling fiance Cecil Vyse, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Sands’s George leaps impulsively into trees, declaiming “Beauty! Beauty!” and kisses Lucy in a poppy field with a mad audacity which is of a piece with his defiant, weirdly innocent admiration for her loveliness.

Arguably, Sands never again had a role of the same mainstream prominence that dovetailed with his own idiosyncratic manner, although he always added style and extravagance to any picture. He certainly had a starring role in Jennifer Lynch’s very peculiar Boxing Helena in 1993 as the surgeon who kidnaps a woman (Sherilyn Fenn) with whom he is obsessed, amputates her limbs and keeps her in a box. There was a debate both then and now as to whether the movie’s satirical analysis of coercive and toxic masculinity entirely comes off, whether this was a film to be laughed with or at – but this was a role in which Sands shone, in his way.

He was the beautiful gay man Yves Cloquet in David Cronenberg’s 1991 version of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch – who is in fact a hallucinatory insect: Sands was well chosen for this humorously bizarre creation. He was the haughty bad guy Butsov in Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas in 1995, the pimp controlling escort Elisabeth Shue, who has a doomed affair with Nic Cage’s self-destructive screenwriter. But he was always getting roles as aristocrats or aesthetes: he was the glacial Louis XIV in Roland Joffé’s Vatel in 2000, Franz Liszt in James Lapine’s Impromptu in 1991 (opposite a similarly preposterous Hugh Grant as Chopin) and Shelley in Ken Russell’s Gothic.

Julian Sands in The Painted Bird.
Julian Sands in The Painted Bird. Photograph: Dobrovsky/AP

But it was in horror that Sands probably found his calling, often in European co-productions where his glam-rock allure and unconventional line readings were more warmly received. Sands was the phantom in Dario Argento’s The Phantom of the Opera – not disfigured, but a lank-haired lordly figure living vampirically in the sewers under the opera house. He was also the predatory, romantic vampire in Shimako Sato’s Tale of a Vampire in 1992. But to horror fans and Sands fans, his greatest work was probably the entirely freaky and likably weird Warlock in 1989 (a role he reprised for the sequel), where he played the Warlock, son of Satan, hunted down in the 17th century by Richard E Grant’s witchfinder but then propelled forward in time by the devil to modern-day Los Angeles – and the witchfinder also follows him to the 20th century through this same time portal. This is a late-night treat.

My favourite Sands performance was probably his small but potent appearance in Václav Marhoul’s gruelling war drama The Painted Bird in 2019, about a young Jewish orphan in occupied Poland who gets a job as an altar boy to Harvey Keitel’s priest but is tempted away by a certain creepy parishioner and distiller of illegal booze, a man who turns about to be a paedophile – played by Sands. He brought exactly the right kind of malice, damage and despair to this fleeting part.

Sands was unique figure, a one-off – and that performance in A Room With a View can always be re-watched.