Here’s something you can’t write. Two of the most powerful moments (in otherwise so-so films) I’ve encountered recently haven’t been words at all. I’ve talked about La-La Land before, and the look between the two main characters at the end; it was the best thing in the film for me. A couple of nights ago, I saw After the Wedding. (I’ll try not to give any spoilers.) It’s a film about three women, with most of the men having little more than walk-on parts. The three leads – Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore, and Abby Quinn – give amazing performances and it’s entirely down to them that the film is watchable at all, since it travels an awkward path, beginning with somewhat questionable “white saviour” activities of Michelle Williams’s character in India, and ending up quite deep in predictable sugary sludge.
But it’s that moment – those few seconds that nobody could write – that I want to talk about. During wedding celebrations, the Michelle Williams character, who is a complete stranger to the family, sees somebody she recognises. And in a look she says, “I know this man, I know him very well. I don’t want to see him again. I desperately want to talk to him again. Will he believe that I didn’t mean to be here? I didn’t know he'd be here.” – and more. And this is all in the look. We, the audience, have had no warning of this before. This isn’t the payoff for something set up earlier. It really is all in the look. Just to watch her face is a masterclass for actors, and for writers (and directors), too. Trust the actor, because in the end, that's who people are watching. Writers want to be clear. But dialogue isn’t the only way.
I’ve seen Angelina Jolie (a fine and under-appreciated actor) quoted as saying, “I can do that with a look” when seeing a paragraph of dialogue. As a director, too, I’ve encouraged actors not to use the words if they don’t need them. But this is a scene where Michelle Williams has replaced a whole page of dialogue with a look. Go see it and learn. It’s on Netflix as I write.
(The eyes in the picture are not those of Michelle Williams, but belong to actor Eleanor Howell, from my film "Children of the Lake". By the way, if "actor" as an inclusive term is good enough for Cate Blanchett, it's good enough for me.)