Do you remember where you were when you first saw Atonement? I do. I waited a full calendar year after its 2007 release, eventually renting it from my local library once I was of legal age to check out an R-rated movie (17). I sat alone in my bedroom, watching the DVD on my laptop, and I quickly fell in love with the film’s star, James McAvoy.
New to me, James McAvoy had been a working actor for over a decade leading up to Atonement. British audiences knew him from their version of TV’s Shameless as well as fun, little movies like quiz bowl comedy Starter for 10. And he had eventually worked his way over to the States, appearing in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Forgive me, Father, for I uttered the phrase “hot Mr. Tumnus” in 2005) and the critically acclaimed The Last King Of Scotland.
But Atonement. It was a sexual awakening, a game-changer. As Robbie, McAvoy was the rosy-cheeked, smirking groundskeeper who won the heart of haughty socialite Cecilia (Keira Knightley). He’s effortlessly charming and frightfully earnest. There’s a hot summer day, a controversial letter, a confrontation in the library, and suddenly, McAvoy’s been Goslinged.
Now then: Do you remember where you were when you first saw the trailer for Split? It came out just last week. M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film (he’s back once again, baby!) appears to be a thriller about three teenaged girls abducted by a man with 23 different split personalities. In the two-and-a-half minute trailer, McAvoy inhabits several different facets of “Kevin” — an American-accented man, a British woman, a 9-year-old boy. (Is he also, perhaps, “The Beast” the trailer warns about? Only Shyamalan knows.) Which leads me to the question of… what? What is my dreamy McAvoy doing in this movie, and, now that I think of it, in a lot of movies over the past couple of years?
Sight unseen, Split seems like a strange role for McAvoy, who is perhaps still best defined (at least, by me) by his role in Atonement, but his choice of roles since the latter has been increasingly strange. First, there was Wanted, where he played a smarmy, physics-defying assassin. And then there was Danny Boyle’s Trance, in which McAvoy is a haunted art auctioneer working through the innermost depths of his mind to try to locate a painting for criminals. In Filth, McAvoy is a cursing corrupt detective, manipulating and sexually assaulting his way through Edinburgh in hopes of a promotion. All the while, McAvoy’s appeared in three of the new X-Men films as Professor X himself, a soon-to-be-completely-bald telepathic mutant dedicated to teaching young mutants how to control their powers. All of this seems like a far and desperately weird cry from the blushing garden boy (Do they still make garden boys? Asking for a friend) I fell in love with in 2007.
Say what you will about Wanted and Trance and Filth — their quality is questionable, though they may go down as cult favorites for some — but McAvoy is really good in them. He inhabits characters with ease. There is a noticeable and profound difference between his smiling, romantic lead to the spitting, crying, fighting, screaming lead he’s playing now, as well as the quiet sensitivity to his Professor X (Do you also think he screamed “Erik!” in the same tone he screamed “Briony!”?). He commits fully to all of it. And in Filth, in particular, a nasty little film from 2014, McAvoy’s Bruce is repulsive and disgusting, and you can see that McAvoy is fully reveling in it. He loves it. He’s gross, and he’s proud.
From a distance, this just looks like a traditional leading man who’s forsaken the traditional action-movie-or-prestige-picture route to play characters, but that’s not what McAvoy is doing. What McAvoy is actually doing — and has always been doing — is being gross. There is no sudden Weird McAvoy; he’s been weird from the very jump! The yammering, maniacal McAvoy (and all its variations) that we see in the Split trailer is perhaps no different from the McAvoy we met nearly a decade ago in Atonement.
Upon rewatching, McAvoy’s Robbie is kind of a pervy schoolboy reframed as a romantic hero. That’s not to say he’s not still handsome and charming (because he’s really handsome and really charming), but he is also strange in a sweet way. Atonement has never been a traditional period piece or a traditional romance. There’s a self-aware cackle Robbie gives as he finishes typing out the letter to Cecilia — the letter that will set the entire chain of events of the remainder of the film into motion — that’s so perfect and borderline-unhinged. The film centers around the mistakes of a horned-up groundskeeper: Why were we to expect McAvoy would come out of it as a traditional leading man?
And so while knowing this about McAvoy and seeing all of this strangeness throughout his past work may not redeem the trailer for Split — or Victor Frankenstein, for that matter — it’s better that we have him in all of his weird glory than not at all. So many leading men are brooding, hulking lumps, somehow entirely composed regardless of whatever emotion they’re meant to portray. That’s not to say more is more when it comes to acting, but the oddness and specificity that James McAvoy brings to his various roles shine through whatever the material he’s been given. There’s no room for pride; he’s not concerned with “handsome.” He’s in the trenches of a character, redefining how interesting a protagonist is actually allowed to be. He’s a weirdo. He’s allowed! Perhaps he knows you’re gonna fall in love with him anyway.