There are some movies you just can’t imagine with a different actor in the leading part. Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Cool Hand Luke, Dirty Harry, On The Waterfront, Raging Bull. The central performance carries these films, bears all their weight. So it is with Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, and she is magnificent. She lifts a very good action spy thriller into another echelon entirely by her total commitment, professionalism, ability and class.
You’ve never been this up close and personal with Theron. From her introduction, bathing her bruised – seriously bruised, like seventy percent of her body bruised – naked body in an ice-bath, to lingering, ravishing close-ups – one of them dwells for what might be ten seconds on just one of her eyes – to an emotional complexity completely unexpected for a noirish, often brutal, hyper-stylised graphic novel adaptation – she is present in a fundamentally and startlingly raw, exposed, intimate way. I’m quite taken aback by how strongly her performance moved me.
Of course, I shouldn’t be. Theron is brilliant. She has an Oscar for Monster, and her performance in Mad Max Fury Road last year likewise fused serious emotional heft and dramatic depth to the iron lung of that impeccable machine. But Atomic Blonde is being billed as a “fight” picture – which it is, and a superlative one – and the striking performance fuelling and stoking it, in every moment of every scene (including the fight scenes, which depict pain and weariness with great respect) is not what’s being touted on the posters.
Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a British spy on a mission in Berlin in the days leading up to the fall of the wall. The plot is convoluted – unnecessarily so – but it’s got a clear and satisfying payoff, so don’t worry if you get lost along the way (I did). The various spies, scoundrels and schemers she encounters are played – amongst others – by James McEvoy, Eddie Marian, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones and John Goodman – but none commit, or land, with Theron’s intensity. It’s her movie and she makes the movie.
Of course, David Leitch actually directed the movie, working from a script by Kurt Johnstad and Antony Johnston, but the intimacy and depth of his collaboration with Theron is ever-present. She obviously trusted him every step of the way, and in doing so, allowed herself to be complicit in his fetishisation of her. She is photographed through the prism of, if not the male gaze, then the sexual gaze, and there’s no point pretending otherwise. Lorraine offers something for almost everyone, whatever your angle, whatever the kink. If you’re into S&M, that’s right there on the surface for you, including all those romantic, lingering shots of Lorraine’s bruised, naked body. But if you’ve got a thing for boots, a lust for leather, a penchant for wigs, feet, trampling (yep) or even if you’ve got a smoking fetish, it’s all here. Lorraine smokes a lot in this film, and, like everything else, it’s shot to make you hot.
Elsewhere – once the camera reluctantly slips from Theron’s cheekbones – there is plenty of terrific design. This is a Berlin 1989 via every music clip you’ve ever seen from the period, with a dash of Blade Runner, a smattering of The Matrix, and a hefty dose of Nicolas Winding Refn. Light may come from unexplained sources, but it’s there for a purpose – it’s there to sculpt Theron. This is stylization and as far removed from reality as science fiction. That said, it’s got its thigh-high booted feet far more planted in reality than John Wick, Leitch’s other major work (in which Keanu Reeves also made himself very, very ready for his close-up). When McEvoy’s character makes a speech that clearly pays homage to Richard Burton’s classic monologue toward the end of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, it feels honourable rather than insulting. There is respect for the period here, even if a history lesson this is not.
Finally, the soundtrack is insane. Practically wall-to-wall, it’s got every Cold War 80s song and then some. As with Baby Driver, the action scenes were clearly conceived with their accompanying songs in mind; unlike that film, you’ll know all the songs here, and some will be your all-time faves. (For the record, I preferred this film to Baby Driver, with which it shares many qualities.)
I was mesmerized by Atomic Blonde; I hope it spawns sequels. I will follow Lorraine on any misadventure she cares to indulge in, and hope to get bruised along the way.