Was it fate that John Hurt provided the narration for Ben Whishaw’s 2006 breakout, Perfume? Because in the lineage of impeccably-voiced, male British stars, whose hyper-articulate pipes could make poetry out of Rebecca Black lyrics, there’s Richard Burton, there’s Hurt, and now there’s Whishaw, a delicate character actor who, if reciting your last rites, may well make you believe in a hereafter. Whishaw’s velvety coo doesn’t have that Hurt-Burton gruffness, but it’s still terribly commanding, an aural delight that perks up ears and adds instant pathos to films that need it. Consider the total blandness that might have befallen Brideshead Revisited if Whishaw weren’t the one waxing melancholic as Sebastian Flyte, giving genuine life to Evelyn Waugh’s words. The actor’s innate amenability to the classics was something shrewdly observed by Jane Campion, who cast him as John Keats in her unsung masterstroke Bright Star, a film that finally and literally gave Whishaw poetry to recite.
That unmistakable voice is only one facet of Whishaw’s magnetism, which true fans have been aware of since My Brother Tom, a British drama that saw the then 21-year-old play an abuse victim who befriends a young girl (the film netted Whishaw a Most Promising Newcomer trophy at the 2001 British Independent Film Awards). Now 32, Whishaw has since embodied many more tortured souls, including a handful of ostracized and tenderly realized gay men, and even the occasional rock star. With camera-friendly features as sharply angled as they are disarming, Whishaw lends his movies a sweet sophistication, which can be exploited for comedy and tragedy alike. His big, unruly mess of dark hair, which seems to rest precariously atop his lean, shadowy face, has helped him adopt the wild air and presence of musicians, like Keith Richards in the Brian Jones biopic Stoned and Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’s rock mosaic I’m Not There (which some might call the actor’s first true poetic venture). That same look, and those same proclivities, had Whishaw in line to play Beat Generation figure Lucien Carr in the forthcoming Kill Your Darlings, but the part ultimately went to Chronicle star Dane DeHaan.
Whishaw’s propensity to take on gay roles has sparked plenty of rumors about his sexuality, a topic he’s never entertained with much more than a vague kiss-off. Already something of a gay icon, the actor might do well to arrange a formal outing (if indeed he takes after Lord Sebastian), but his considerable classiness hoists him above such tabloid-fodder discussions, and on screen, his energy has a certain ambisexual fluidity, which only aids his range as a performer. It’s a quality that made him a fine fit for Ariel in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, a film that sees Whishaw at his most volatile and fancifully pixie-ish. It’s what helped him effortlessly shift from a lovelorn gay composer in Cloud Atlas to a know-it-all, go-to gadget guy in Skyfall, a Bond flick that might be the most widely loved of the series.
It’s been a very generous season for Whishaw diehards, who, rather than having to venture to the arthouse, have seen their handsome chameleon star in two major mainstream hits. After a highly acclaimed turn as the lead character in BBC Two’s Richard II, Whishaw spruced up the uneven Cloud Atlas like an old pro (even trumping old pro Jim Broadbent as the ensemble’s MVP). The gravitas of Whishaw’s chief segment, which sees him play the brains behind the titular sextet, leaves the epic movie’s other plot threads in the dust, perhaps warranting a feature-length drama of its own. In Skyfall, Whishaw proves integral to 007’s rejuvenation, donning the spectacles and dominant demeanor of Bond’s iconic quartermaster, Q. In just a few short scenes, the svelte actor, whose ever-malleable looks make geek embodiment a breeze, sizes up Daniel Craig and emerges the coolest guy in the room, which, all things considered, is no small feat. There are surely some folks who miss the character’s past portrayers, like Desmond Llewelyn and John Cleese, but one thing is certain: Q never sounded this good.