Clear looks, a deep voice and the precise up and down of the eyebrows. Albert Finney’s face and minimal movements carry the pathos of great moments. Today, the versatile character actor of British cinema died after a short illness at the age of 82.
Whether it was his masterful portrayal of Agatha Christie’s quirky Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), the wonderfully dry performance as career attorney Edward L. Masry in Erin Brockovich (2000), which earned him an Academy Award nomination, or the Bond family gamekeeper in Skyfall (2012), Finney’s long experience in acting made each and every one of his screen portrayals memorable. Unforgettable: calling superspy James Bond a “jumped up little shit” with a straight face.
Finney grew up in a working-class family near Manchester and studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. His aspirations led him to Stratford-upon-Avon to rehearse and perform Shakespeare. He perfected the art of speaking with and without words, the absoluteness and depth of facial expressions. This is how figures turn into characters and settle down in our memory, even if they only appear for a brief moment like many of his smaller film roles.
The 1984 drama Under the volcano has Finney deliver a tour de force of acting quality. His British consul Geoffrey Firmin boozes like there is no tomorrow. He staggers and falls, curses and pleads until the last bottle has been emptied and the viewer is left wondering, whether sympathy or relief is appropriate. Finney’s portrayal of a drinker is pathetic and overpowering, frail and mean, a man on the edge, yet completely cleaved for the existence that drives us all. His performance earns him another Academy Award nomination.
In 2003, Finney takes on the role of iconic British prime minister Winston Churchill for The Gathering Storm. Making the legend come alive earns him a well-deserved BAFTA award for best actor. In 2016, Mark Lawson of The Guardian chose The Gathering Storm as the most memorable television portrayal of Churchill. He wrote: “This BBC-HBO account of Churchill’s return from exile to save his nation will always be the one to beat. Finney doesn’t take many roles, and his meticulous preparation is apparent: he uncannily walks and talks almost exactly as Churchill did, while also vividly suggesting – especially in a scene where the leader, nude in his bathroom, dictates a speech to a secretary – the character’s battles between body and mind.”
Albert Finney’s final acting credit, Skyfall, bears a certain symbolism: he guards an empty house full of memories.