From ‘Thinking Man’s Crumpet’ to Pop Tart
Words: Tara Judah
Having begun her acting career on the prestigious Globe Theatre stage as Rosaline in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, and with a striking on screen performance as Head Girl Kelly in the 2007 remake of St Trinian’s - both performances debuting before she graduated from RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) - it’s fair to say that Gemma Arterton had set her career bar pretty high. Whether or not she cleared it, Arterton was again running at that bar after graduation in a spate of film and TV roles. Given the career trajectory that followed, perhaps someone advised her to strike while the iron was hot, even if that meant getting burned along the way.
Her almost convincing West Country accent (the part of England where everyone sounds a bit like a pirate) combined with her thoughtfully pouty portrayal of Thomas Hardy’s Tess in the BBC’s four part miniseries, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, bade well for the ambitious English Rose. The same year saw her take on smaller roles in Guy Ritchie’s Rock ‘n’ Rolla and Marc Forster’s almost incomprehensible Bond flick, Quantum of Solace. The second Daniel Craig Bond film to hit the big screen after the success of Casino Royale. Arterton was capitalising on big screen exposure. Her strategy seemed to be a balance between esteemed literary works and minor femme roles in middling Hollywood popcorn fodder. Early days maybe, but her choices were already earmarked as potential mistakes by many - the Internet is full of speculation on whether or not being a Bond Girl is career suicide. Still, Arterton spoke out against her critics claiming that her character in Quantum of Solace, Strawberry Fields, was the ‘thinking man’s crumpet’.
With a statement that only further cemented the fear that her choice of roles was increasingly designed for male titillation rather than thespian street cred, Arterton clearly believed she could strut her stuff for big bucks and retain the respect of a true thesp. If only naiveté could claw back some of that respect today…
Determined to straddle the line somewhere between sexy and stoic, Arterton’s claim gave ogling audiences permission to objectify her, in the longstanding notion that all publicity is good publicity. The one defence she retained even up until this point however was that for all the sexy inference in her various performances, Arterton hadn’t yet given audiences any explicit nudity. In the beginning, at least, her flesh was always secondary to her acting and any appearance of ‘side boob’ could be credited to the cinematographer.
In St Trinian’s Arterton played a hard-arse hero with smarts and know-how. Dressed in figure-hugging high-waisted pencil skirts with red lipstick and a sharp bob, the sexy schoolgirl look was just that – allusion. In Quantum of Solace she took on the role of a fiery redhead, dressed in knee-high leather boots and trench, items that appear to be the only barrier between her and Bond; again, allusion. If you squint hard enough (and yes there are websites dedicated to this) you can make out a little bit of side boob in both Quantum of Solace and her next feature, Tamara Drewe. But in all these examples nudity is incidental rather than explicit. In the case of Tamara Drewe, nudity stands in for vulnerability and the only time she is seen as sexual object is when she mounts a fence in a pair of way-too-tight denim shorts. But even then the point is to illustrate the character’s desperation so that the audience can develop some empathy for her.
Better-titled ‘The Disappearance of Gemma Arterton’s Acting Career’, The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009) featured more nudity – and pointless shouting - than even its silly script could possibly have called for. In an altogether tacky role, this once blossoming English Rose, with her breasts on display for all to see, was beginning to wilt.Following Alice Creed was Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Clash of the Titans (both 2010), a little voice work and some short films. No high quality drama and no Shakespeare. 2012 saw a return to feature films with Byzantium and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. But even acting alongside the likes of Saoirse Ronan (Hanna, The Host) Sam Riley (On The Road, Brighton Rock) Caleb Landry-Jones (Antiviral) and Jonny Lee Miller (still best known as Sick Boy in Trainspotting), this film was a bigger disaster than anyone could ever have guessed.
Two beautiful actresses playing a mother/daughter vampire duo acing out a weak rape-revenge narrative against unfair patriarchal vampirism by establishing and running of a brothel just doesn’t make for successful cinema. So abysmal in fact, Byzantium now bypasses Australian cinema screens and heads straight to DVD (July 25th), a decision made at the eleventh hour. At least Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters made it to the big screen.
The first five minutes in Byzantium tells all: Clara (Arterton) acts out a strip tease with disappointing and violent results. With each bloody vampire kill we increasingly see more of her breasts, until finally her nipples are exposed and she has exacted revenge; neither of which are satisfying enough to compensate for what has now descended into some really bad acting.
Looking back at Gemma Arterton’s career it’s disappointing to admit that her talent just wasn’t enough. More disappointing still is admitting that her pop tart trade off seems to have come at the expense of that talent. Whilst I don’t personally have anything against the sight of naked breasts, if given a choice, I know which of Arterton’s attributes I would prefer to see.