2019 Film Essays

On Performance by Q.V. Hough: Rosamund Pike in ‘A Private War’

In A Private War, Rosamund Pike embodies a woman under the influence, a real-life war journalist in pursuit of truth. She establishes an authentic physical interpretation — high shoulders, low vocal tone, 90-degree arm posturing —  and then improvises for a more in-depth character portrait. Like the subject, Pike moves past her fears and thrives as a result.

Directed by Matthew Heineman, A Private War chronicles the experiences of the late American journalist Marie Colvin. Set between 2001 and 2012, the film details the subject’s efforts to bring attention to international conflicts, to ensure that “the suffering was documented.” As Pike has mentioned in numerous interviews, she pursued the role because of Heineman’s experiences as a documentarian (Cartel Land). Pike understood that he would favor truths and contradictions over the mythology surrounding Colvin.

Character motion and narration drives A Private War’s first act. During the Sri Lankan Civil War, Colvin processes the present while reflecting upon past memories. Pike hits the most crucial character beats, mainly to set up a strong middle act. Unlike the campy, sing-song narration Pike delivers in her Oscar-nominated Gone Girl performance, she speaks with a different rhythm in A Private War. It’s about vocal punctuation and a conversational tone; the qualities that allowed Colvin to operate efficiently, both in the news room and in the field. A Private War’s first act doesn’t glamorize Colvin’s persona, nor does it romanticize the international journalist trade. Instead, Heineman and Pike focus on the principal truths about Colvin: her sacrifices and fears, the vices and disorienting recollections. By establishing Colvin’s mannerisms early on, Pike can more effectively improvise in two-character or multi-character sequences. After all, A Private War primarily focuses on relationships, conflict zones and the different variations of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In A Private War, Pike delivers a reverberating performance. Her low-pitched voice booms in conversations about dead romance and dead bodies. A shaky cigarette informs the audience about unspecified addictions. Given what Colvin experienced in real life, Pike’s physical trembling correlates with the subject’s nervous anticipation. She hits the mark with character design and pacing. A less-seasoned performer could’ve easily drifted into melodrama. While reporting on the Sri Lankan Civil War, Colvin is partially blinded during an explosion. Soon thereafter, Pike shakes in a hospital bed while processing her character’s new normal. But A Private War isn’t about quiet moments of agony. Instead, the film is more about shared grief, and what Colvin’s experiences reveal about unprocessed trauma. 

Pike thrives during a post-dinner moment in A Private War. Colvin has lost sight in one eye, but hasn’t yet begun wearing an eyepatch. In her bedroom, alone, she removes a temporary bandage and thinks about her appearance. Colvin is strong, but Pike needs to channel her vulnerable side. A gentle moan calls back to the film’s opening sequence, in which Colvin discusses the possibility of having children with her ex-husband. And just like that, there’s an extra layer of performative depth. Pike builds upon foundational character moments. Act One displays her understanding of Colvin’s basic mannerisms. Act Two underlines her ability to improvise while fully immersed into the character’s frame of mind.

For Pike, physical mannerisms complement her cadence. As Colvin, she repeatedly crosses her left arm under her right elbow while smoking. This is a recurring visual motif, one that speaks to the subject’s social unease. In A Private War, Pike’s brilliance emerges through non-verbals. Many naive performers, male or female, often believe that motion and noise equates to an interesting persona. But there’s a big difference between natural charisma and contrived behavior. In A Private War, Pike capitalizes upon specific personality traits. And she stays consistent throughout. Pike expertly highlights Colvin’s basic mannerisms, and then adds some visual flair to anchor the most impactful moments. She keeps building and building, layer upon layer. This structured approach preps the audience for the devastating final sequence, but it also sets up a poignant moment that precedes the final act and beautifully  encapsulates the collective themes of Pike’s performance.

Character design boosts the Colvin mythos. In A Private War, some characters gaze at the journalist with admiration, while others show their concern. The title reflects the journalist’s constant push-and-pull while trying to accept her flaws, and how others perceive them, while being fully committed to on-going events that matter more than anything else. In public Colvin moments, Pike’s posturing seems to hold the character together. But in the field, there’s a slight variation on the character design, as Pike often loosens up the 90-degree arm pose for stylistic purposes, for strong visual moments. Colvin appears to be more comfortable in war zones than at parties, and so Pike’s movements are less rigid. As a director, Heineman uses wide shots to contrast Pike with other characters, and these particular scenes also lock into the actress’ facial movements, like her roaming eyes and nervous mouth quirks.  

For the most part, A Private War doesn’t feature dramatic close-ups. Heineman and cinematographer Robert Richardson present medium shots for a naturalistic character portrait. They keep the viewer at a distance. Medium profile shots detail Colvin’s constant grappling with memories and vices, which makes the most intimate shots of Pike significantly more impactful. A hospital sequence shows Colvin’s posturing, but close-ups reveal her vulnerability upon being questioned by her loyal photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan). The casual viewer may come to the understanding that Colvin is simply addicted to alcohol and war. But the moment is about clarity. Colvin accepts her flaws, and embraces a devoted supporter. Pike’s consistency with her physical character design sets up this particular moment. For both the actress and real-life subject, there’s an emotional release.

Since A Private War focuses on the larger picture, the majority of Pike’s best moments come during the middle act. And her nude scene is significant in terms of storytelling and character resolution. As Colvin stares at her naked body in a mirror, Pike repeats the same physical mannerisms that she’s displayed throughout A Private War, but in a more graceful way. Colvin removes her eyepatch and touches her eyelid, her cheek, her mouth. The camera pans left, only to keep following Pike to another mirror. Colvin appears to reach an epiphany. Now, Pike touches her body once again — her mouth, her breast, her thighs. A wide shot shows Pike’s Colvin in her most natural state. She turns her head right, and the camera reveals that she’s not alone. Colvin dips into a bathtub and embraces her romantic partner, Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci). Colvin re-claims her identity as a woman. This particular moment could’ve ended A Private War, as it brings together all the themes that Pike underlines with her performance. Once again, there’s a 90-degree arm design, but Pike’s Colvin isn’t protecting herself from outside noise, or trying to keep herself together. Instead, she’s literally connected to another human being, and they hold that pose together; a visual metaphor for everything that Colvin fought for, both personally and professionally. A shared moment of truth.

Watch A Private War at Amazon Prime.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor. He’s written for RogerEbert.com, Fandor and Screen Rant, among other outlets. 

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