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Murphy & Nolan: An Underappreciated Duo

With a definitive style, consistent story themes and a string of regular collaborators Christopher Nolan is the picture of the “auteur” director. Although among all the discussions of Nolan’s career (his fascination with masculinity, moody aesthetic and rewarding collaborations with Michael Caine) one thing goes relatively underexplored. His work with Cillian Murphy.

Today we will look back over their career together to find out why they make such a great pairing. We will also look at their upcoming collaboration, this year’s Oppenheimer.

Murphy and Nolan Begins

Nolan and Murphy first worked together on Batman Begins. In the first movie of the celebrated Dark Knight trilogy, Murphy played Dr. Jonathan Crane aka Scarecrow. The secondary antagonist creates a fear-inducing toxin to help Ra’s al Ghul destroy Gotham. Despite being dispatched rather easily he later returns with his fear drug dealing introducing Batman in The Dark Knight and later becoming a judge left to decide the fate of the rich and the police in The Dark Knight Rises.

Murphy also played Robert Fischer in the sci-fi thriller Inception. The C.E.O. whose mind Cobb and his team are sent to implant an idea inside of. Finally, in Dunkirk, he played the Shivering Soldier who delivered a dire warning to a civilian rescue boat heading to the title beach.

With these roles varying so much in prominence one wonders why Murphy keeps teaming up with Nolan? Well, the reason is simple, Murphy often gives his films the emotional or thematic resonance they need to work.

A Scene Stealer

In the Dark Knight trilogy, Murphy provided one of the first glimpses of the series’ key grounded reimaginings of Batman’s rogues’ gallery. For the film to wholly work, Murphy had to make the monstrous supervillain Scarecrow feel like a real person. But Murphy plays Crane with flawless believability. Outwardly a seemingly passive person who relishes the chance to exert power over others. The perfect counterpoint to Bruce Wayne’s journey and a perfect realistic realisation of the man who loves stoking fear in others.

Cillian Murphy makes Scarecrow believable in Batman Begins // Credit: Warner Bros.
Cillian Murphy makes Scarecrow believable in Batman Begins // Credit: Warner Bros.

Murphy also brings subtlety and pathos to Robert Fischer, whose insecurities regarding his relationship with his father provide the basis for Inception’s heist. Murphy’s changes in manner as Cobb and his team slowly work on Fischer’s subconscious is a masterclass in understatement. The ending of Cobb’s story would have been fine alone. However, Murphy’s performance in Fischer’s parallel narrative elevates the emotional impact of the story and the other actors’ work.

Murphy's underappreciated turn as Robert Fischer in Inception // Credit: Warner Bros
Murphy’s underappreciated turn as Robert Fischer in Inception // Credit: Warner Bros

Finally, as the Shivering Soldier Murphy is tasked with personifying the horrors suffered in war. He’s there to show the civilian boat the hell they are going into. Murphy does this so successfully that when the civilians head to Dunkirk anyway it makes everything even more impactful.

Murphy's haunting turn as the Shivering Soldier in Dunkirk // Credit: Warner Bros
Murphy’s haunting turn as the Shivering Soldier in Dunkirk // Credit: Warner Bros

This is why the pair work so well. Murphy is always able to provide thematically weighty performances that get audiences invested. While through his considered writing and direction Nolan is able to make Murphy’s talents shine.

“My best memories of working on Christopher Nolan films are never the large-scale stuff. It’s the very involved, intensely focused, extremely rigorous work, with Chris right there beside the camera.”

Cillian Murphy, NME

“I’ve always known since I first met him – however many years ago it is now, almost 20 years – that he is one of the great actors, not just of his generation, but of all time.”

Christopher Nolan on Cillian Murphy, Far Out Magazine

Leading Oppenheimer

This year Murphy will finally be leading a Nolan project as the titular J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb”. Nolan has certainly picked the perfect lead for Oppenheimer.

Amongst the all-star cast and sure-to-be spectacular effects sequences depicting the trinity bomb test, at its centre will be Murphy who has already demonstrated throughout Nolan’s work that he can lift the incredible work of the actors around him, ground an extraordinary character in reality and embody someone who knows the true face of horror. This coupled with the personal research Murphy has undertaken undoubtedly makes him the best actor to depict the person who helped create one of the most deadly devices in history and who famously quoted, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”?

Also Read: The Anatomy of a Christopher Nolan Film

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Posted by
Josh Greally

Writer and filmmaker. I have a masters in directing film and television and have written film reviews for several smaller sites in the past. Films are my life, but I also enjoy writing, reading, listening to music and debating.