Flat White

Perfect performers, imperfect men

10 February 2019

11:57 AM

10 February 2019

11:57 AM

It would have been easier for Liam Neeson if he had kept his mouth shut. Still, thinking that society was capable of having a mature conversation about the psychology of revenge says more about the state of present-day society than it does about Liam Neeson.

In an interview with The Independent when promoting his new film Cold Pursuit – a revenge drama – Neeson described his reaction to learning that a family member had been raped by a black man and how he proceeded to wander ‘up and down areas with a cosh’ hoping to get into a fight with a black man so that he could kill him.

These comments are crude and confronting yet, at the same time, they are a personal confession from a moment in Liam Neeson’s life which Neeson admitted to being ‘ashamed’ of.  The expectation that confessions of shameful moments in our past should conform to politically-correct standards kinda misses the point. These moments are, by definition, moments that we are not proud of. If Liam Neeson, forty years ago, had given a politically-correct response that was perfectly in keeping with the values of 2019 like ‘Why does the colour of his skin matter?’ then what would be the point of making the confession forty years later? Surely the only point of woke personal confessions from four decades ago would be to advance your own moral purity.

The other issue is the context in which Neeson told this story. Neeson was promoting a film where he plays a man driven by revenge against the drug dealers who killed his son. Presumably (I haven’t seen it), Cold Pursuit, a remake of the Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance, explores the dilemmas of vigilante justice and wanton vengeance which is why Neeson opened up about a time in his life where he behaved irrationally and mistakenly thought violence was the answer.

One of the commonly ignored problems with the holier-than-thou, politically-correct orthodoxy of the present zeitgeist is the loss of empathy. The self-appointed guardians of virtue believe they have empathy; for minorities and victims; but they seldom practice true empathy which involves looking at all perspectives, not just the perspectives which sit most comfortably with you.

In other words, the modern Left deal in binaries – good and evil, privileged and underprivileged, righteous and unrighteous – but reality is never that simple. In order to make compelling art, we need our artists to be able to empathise with and explore ideas that make us uncomfortable.


Actors are taught to empathise, it is how they get into the heads of their characters and discern their character’s motivation. The late, great Alan Rickman was famous for playing villains, but he once corrected that assumption by saying, ‘I don’t play villains, I play very interesting people’

People seldom commit wrongful actions without justifying those actions to themselves as part of some personal moral code which they think will benefit themselves or those they care about. As far as I can tell, Liam Neeson isn’t playing a villain in Cold Pursuit but he is likely playing a flawed individual who is driven by emotion and not reason. In any case, Neeson would not be very effective at playing such a character if he was incapable of delving into more murky moments in his past where he could relate to that character.

Actors are precisely that, portrayers of the different and the unknown and talented actors are able to get us to empathise with characters that are, seemingly a world apart. To do that we require actors who might be a bit rough around the edges, actors who are human and flawed with lived experiences who are not watered down and stage-managed.

Lionel Shriver wrote in the wake of the #MeToo controversy ‘Given that the number of perfect people whom I have met is exactly zero, a moral purity test for artists is the end of art.’ Imagine a world where the only actors with politically-correct opinions and backgrounds were allowed to perform? That might rule out Sean Connery after accusations of abusing his ex-wife, Diane Cilento, while the iconic Steve McQueen would be erased from film history. Likewise Sean Penn (arguably the best American actor of his generation) may have some questions to answer.

The career of one of the most exciting stars working today, Michael Fassbender, could also be curtailed. Of course, Kevin Spacey and Louis CK would never perform again (as may already be the case) and Jude Law would be black-listed for cheating on his wife

That’s just for actors who are alleged to have committed a wrong action. What about actors who hold opinions deemed incorrect? Screen legend John Wayne claimed to believe in ‘white supremacy’, Mel Gibson has been punished for remarks deemed anti-Semitic and who could forget that rant by Michael Richards? Why stop there? Why not censure Clint Eastwood because he probably voted for Donald Trump, along with Bruce Willis, Jon Voight, Kelsey Grammer and James Woods. Perhaps there was a time when Tom Hanks thought about claiming something on tax that he shouldn’t have. Keep going and pretty soon the only actors who are deemed acceptable for us to watch will be the vacuous and stage-managed, politically-correct types like Joseph Gordon Levitt and Gwyneth Paltrow.

It should not be forgotten that Liam Neeson grew up as a Catholic in the largely Protestant town of Ballymeena in the 1950s and 1960s when the Troubles were still very much a thing.

Expecting a young man with that background to have held perfectly politically-correct views consistent with 2019 back in the 1970s (when he was consumed by revenge) seems irrational.

What’s more, adversely judging actors for past behaviours (which they are sorry for) means demanding a bland homogeneity on actors to be upstanding members of the community – which does not allow for a range of actors to represent the diversity of characters that need to be portrayed.

Illustration: EuropaCorp/M6 Films/Grive Productions/Canal+/TPS Star/M6/EuropaCorp International.

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