Oscars 2024: The Blue-Eyed Charm of Cillian Murphy

Murphy has been nominated in the Best Actor category for his portrayal of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Oscars 2024: The Blue-Eyed Charm of Cillian Murphy
Oscars 2024: The Blue-Eyed Charm of Cillian Murphy

Until Oppenheimer came out last year, no one would have said Cillian Murphy needs a breakout role. Over a career of over 20 years, he’d worked with some of the best directors in the business, garnering praise and awards for his performances in films like Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto (2005) and The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2007) by Ken Loach. Ever since Batman Begins (2005), Murphy had been a regular in the films of director Christopher Nolan. While he may not have had too many leading roles in major films, Murphy did lead the ensemble cast of Peaky Blinders. By any yardstick, this was a success story. It turns out that this was just the foundation. It took Nolan casting the actor as the titular lead of Oppenheimer (2023) for Murphy to realise his potential and break into Hollywood’s elite. 

In Oppenheimer, Murphy is part of a fantastically gifted cast that has actors as famous as Kenneth Branagh and Gary Oldman in minor roles. He shared the screen with Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Matt Damon and Florence Pugh (among others),  all of whom deliver compelling performances in Oppenheimer. And yet, even while being surrounded by brilliance, Murphy shines the brightest in Nolan’s latest magnum opus. He is omnipresent in the film — you can count on your fingertips the number of scenes that don’t have Murphy in them — and the weight of this ambitious, troubling and meditative  film rests on Murphy’s slight frame. Murphy covers decades of Oppenheimer’s life, playing the scientist as a young college student and then all the way into his later years. He shows with electric grace the many aspects of this complex and complicated man, whose confidence was interpreted as arrogance by many, and who bore his failures and regrets with stoic composure. 

Years ago, when Nolan first cast Murphy as the bespectacled villain Dr. Crane, the director found himself drawn to one particular feature on the actor’s face. “I kept trying to invent excuses for him to take his glasses off in close-ups,” Nolan said in an interview, while talking about Murphy’s “extraordinary” eyes. It apparently took Nolan just a little less than two decades to come up with a project that would let him lavish all the attention he wanted on those blue eyes, which are used to terrific effect in Oppenheimer. Take, for instance, the scene in which Oppenheimer has to make a speech after the bomb is dropped on Japan. Nolan highlights their colour, the blue standing out in sharp contrast to the muted palette of earth tones that surround the actor. Murphy’s eyes, set deep in his gaunt face and gleaming with jewel-bright guilt, are haunted with emotions that run counter to the celebratory spirit of all those around him. It’s one of many moments in which Murphy is able to show the complexity of Oppenheimer who carries the guilt that came with being the father of the atomic bomb, but also earned the respect of his peers for the dignity that he displayed when his loyalty was questioned. As a writer and director, Nolan is invariably drawn to men who are a compelling combination of darkness and brilliance and Murphy’s riveting performance makes you see the tangled, messy humanity of this character.

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