Too hot for the plot: could a modelling job save Jamie Dornan’s character in Belfast?

·4-min read

Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast clearly owes a debt to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Both films are named after places. They’re both autobiographical. They’re both filmed in black and white for maximum awards season impact. And yet the films differ in one key area. Cuarón, for the most part, filled his film with authentic-looking non-actors. Branagh, meanwhile, filled his with Jamie Dornan.

Which is no slight on Dornan. In recent years he’s proved himself to be one of our most charismatic and magnetic actors. Put a camera on Jamie Dornan and audiences won’t look away. Except in Belfast, he’s playing the down-at-heel dad of a family barely able to stay afloat. At one point he is almost sunk by a £500 tax bill. Which would be all too believable, save for the fact that Jamie Dornan looks like Jamie Dornan. If Belfast was set in any recognisable universe, then one of Dornan’s neighbours would have said, “Have you ever thought about becoming a model?”, or “I saw you singing Everlasting Love to professional standards in the club the other night, you could try doing that for a living”, or “You know what would get you out of this pickle? Playing a literal sex god in the movie adaptations of a wildly successful erotic novel series?” And he would have said yes and, because he is Jamie Dornan, all his debts would have been paid off by lunchtime.

But this is the world we live in. Belfast is far from alone in casting actors who are far too attractive for their roles. Cinema is absolutely littered with characters who read like schlubs despite being intimidatingly gorgeous.

Kate Winslet was praised for her bravery for going without makeup in Mare of Easttown.
Brave? … Kate Winslet going easy on the makeup in Mare of Easttown. Photograph: /AP

You’ll find examples of this everywhere. The 2013 remake of Carrie cast Chloë Grace Moretz – who uniformly looks like the most popular girl at school – as its lead; a mistake from which it could never recover. Part of the reason why they never made an Amazing Spider-Man 3 was because the classically handsome 27-year-old Andrew Garfield was wholly unbelievable as retiring high school student Peter Parker. And casting Samantha Barks as ragged, impoverished Éponine in Les Misérables was just silly. Look at that bone structure. Get out there and do some catalogue work, Éponine! You’re in Paris!

The reigning queen of this is probably Kate Winslet, who has made something of a cottage industry of pretending that she isn’t as beautiful as she obviously is. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey’s character takes great pains to explain to Winslet’s character that she’s pretty; a fact that would be easily proved in real life thanks to the invention of mirrors. She was hailed as “brave” for not wearing a lot of makeup in Mare of Easttown, even though Kate Winslet without makeup still looks an awful lot like Kate Winslet. Most egregiously, Winslet’s character in Little Children is heartbroken when Patrick Wilson tells her not to worry about her looks because “beauty is overrated”, even though he is literally talking to a woman whose face advertises L’Oréal for a living.

That said, if you want to be inundated with beautiful people struggling to pass themselves off as normal, watch a romcom. Watch Notting Hill, in which it is considered ridiculous that a movie star like Julia Roberts could be attracted to a shambling uggo like, um, peak-era Hugh Grant. Or better yet, watch Maid in Manhattan, in which against all better judgment Ralph Fiennes sees the inner beauty of Jennifer Lopez, a woman so wildly attractive that as a secondary career she had to release a string of singles designed to convince everyone that although she looked like a millionaire pin-up from Planet Sex, she was actually a human being.

But my favourite version of this happens in films that require a Cinderella-style transformation; where a beautiful actor has to try to ugly up a little before they can emerge triumphant as their fully formed movie star selves at the end. These used to be 10 a penny – Audrey Hepburn made Sabrina, My Fair Lady and Funny Face, all of which feature rough “normal woman turns into Audrey Hepburn” storylines – but one relatively recent example deserves to be held aloft as the best of them all.

Nobody remembers the 2011 movie Limitless, because it was very stupid and life is short, but it contains the all-time greatest ugly-to-movie-star transformation. As the film opens we meet Bradley Cooper. He is (because he is Bradley Cooper) wildly handsome. Handsome enough, in fact, to land supermodel-beautiful Abbie Cornish as a long-term girlfriend. But he has a slightly ratty ponytail. “My excuse for looking like this? I’m a writer,” he bitterly remarks of himself at one point. But then a friend gives him a pill that allows him to reach the absolute pinnacle of human potential. The first thing he does with all this newfound knowledge is get a haircut. Money well spent.

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