If I were asked to pick a single quality that Jeremy Irons projects better than any other actor, it would be obsession. A really enormous amount of his work involves playing men, or cartoon lions, obsessed with something-or-another. Even if that obsession is dumb; remember that he spent most of his time in Eragon looking vaguely embarrassed to be there. Still. His greatest roles, and no few of his lesser ones, have involved a man in fanatical pursuit of a thing. Sometimes, the thing even matters.
Often, of course, it’s a woman—or a man, thank you M. Butterfly. However, he has also pursued the papacy and control of Pride Rock with equal fanaticism. Both roles, now that I think about it, that require a certain amount of disregard for family, although Rodrigo Borgia would be horrified at the suggestion and insist that his family was hugely important to him. It’s just that his idea of it and most people’s are somewhat at odds. Anyway, what you get best out of Jeremy Irons is a certain repressed British yearning. Frankly, in anything I write about him, I find myself running out of synonyms.
Actually, I think a skillful writer could bring out fascinating things with a Jeremy Irons Alfred Pennyworth. What you’d want to do would be detail the intensity with which Alfred raised Bruce Wayne after the death of his parents, the single-minded way he’s kept a deeply scarred boy alive even after he became a deeply scarred man who dresses up as a giant bat to fight crime at night. And then to see all that determination, that intensity, go to waste, because Bruce is more important to Alfred than he is to Bruce. I think we see hints of that in the actual performance we got, but I think that’s as much about Jeremy Irons just being that good as it is about anything that was intended to be there.
That same repressed British yearning is awfully damn attractive, if you want my opinion. I’d much rather watch that than the full-on madness from Dead Ringers, not my favourite Irons film. When he is being passionate about things without being able to quite voice what drives him, that’s I think when he’s his most interesting. When he’s obsessed over something he’s expressing, he’s a bit given to scenery-chewing. Another acceptable version is when what he’s outspoken about his yearning for is not actually what he wants—officially, Rodrigo Borgia wants the papacy and the power and blessings from God and so forth. What he actually wants is to be respectable. Similarly—and I do keep comparing the characters—Scar wants to be the important brother. Pride Rock and all the lionesses are just a bonus.
Irons is another actor just shy of an EGOT, missing only a Grammy. He’s been nominated—for a spoken-language album with Glenn Close in 1985, losing to Ben Kingsley’s The Words of Gandhi. The fact that it’s one nomination from thirty years ago is a bit shocking to me. His voice is so beautiful and rich that I’d listen to him read the phone book. Then again, I suppose there’s no Grammy category for that.