Paul Bettany, who stars in Prime Video‘s new period drama Uncle Frank, has a wide range of roles to his name—from a superhero to a surgeon to an imaginary room mate. Critic Travis Johnson’s picks the best of his career so far.
Noted character actor Paul Bettany takes a rare leading role in the new Prime Video movie Uncle Frank. Written and directed by Six Feet Under’s Alan Ball, it’s a period road movie that sees Bettany as the titular uncle, a gay man who is forced to drive his 18-year-old niece from New York City to South Carolina in the less-than-woke year of 1973, when being gay anywhere in general and in the Deep South in particular was incredibly dangerous.
This is just the latest fascinating role in a career spent exploring times, places, characters and genres across the span of human experience. For example, check out his work in…
The film: On learning that his old boss (David Thewlis) is being released from prison, a nameless ageing gangster (Malcolm McDowell) reflects on the violence and duplicity that brought him to the top of the criminal heap in swinging ‘60s London, when he looked an awful lot like Paul Bettany.
The role: As the unnamed antihero of this bloody tale from photographer-turned-director Paul McGuigan, Bettany is the epitome of callous cruelty, craving a gory path through the mean streets of London in a succession of sharp suits. If you can imagine Get Carter crossed with Ichi the Killer, you’re on the right track.
The film: Oscar-lauded biographical drama of mathematical genius John Nash (Russell Crowe), whose gifted brain is also troubled by schizophrenia. One of director Ron Howard’s best films.
Sign up for Flicks updates
The role: As Charles Herman, lit student roommate to Nash during his year at Princeton University, Bettany faces the rather unusual challenge of playing a character who doesn’t actually exist. Charles is symptom of Nash’s mental health issues, his vivacity and devil-may-care attitude a counterpoint to Nash’s seriousness and nervousness. Every element of Bettany’s performance is in equal opposition to an element of Crowe’s, which is deeply impressive.
The film: Back in castle times, handsome squire William Thatcher (our Heath Ledger) takes up his late master’s armour to win plaudits on the jousting circuit, the heart of Shannyn Sossamon’s winsome princess, and the enmity of Rufus Sewell’s evil Count, all set to a rousing classic rock soundtrack—because lutes suck.
The role: Bettany is Geoffrey Chaucer—yes, that Geoffrey Chaucer—here a penniless braggart a long way from literary legend who winds up becoming Heath’s hype man, talking him up to the crowds at various fairs and jousting matches. In a film that prides itself on anachronism and iconoclasm, Bettany’s drunkard poet is an absolute stand out.
The film: During the Napoleonic Wars, British Navy Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) commands the warship H.M.S Surprise in pursuit of the French privateer Acheron. Adapted from Patrick O’Brian’s acclaimed novels by Australia’s greatest director, Peter Weir, this is one of the finest nautical films ever made.
The role: Teaming up with Rusty for the second time, Bettany is Dr. Stephen Maturin, ship’s surgeon, naturalist and intelligence agent for the Crown. The chemistry between the lusty, bold Aubrey and the reserved, analytical Maturin is the beating heart of the film. In a movie packed with billowing sails, bursting cannons and flashing blades, one of the most arresting scenes is simply these two playing music together—a testament to the strength of both performances.
The film: Love blooms on the sacred courts of the titular temple of tennis, as Bettany’s veteran player falls for Kirsten Dunst’s fast-rising ingenue. Surprisingly not written by Richard Curtis, but still feels like Notting Hill in white polo shirts.
The role: Whatever wish list Bettany’s name wound up on for this thing, you can be pretty sure that Hugh Grant’s name was at the top—it was just that time and this genre. Still, there’s an art to playing the kind of self-effacing, charming, very British romantic lead in these things, and he nails it. Is it his best film? No, but if you want to spend some time with pretty people falling for each other, you could do worse.
The film: At a diner on the edge of the desert a mixed bag of patrons—including Lucas Black, Tyrese Gibson, Adrianne Palicki, Kate Walsh and Dennis Quaid—find themselves under siege by hordes of possessed humans and the odd demon, because one of their number is destined to give birth to the saviour of humanity. Luckily, gun-toting fallen angel and absolute bad arse Michael (our boy Bettany) is on hand.
The role: Stoic, tough and extremely lethal, Bettany’s Michael is the latest in a long line of lock-lipped action heroes. While Bettany has cropped up in his share of action movies, he’s never really been front and centre more than a couple of times. But he acquits himself well here, bringing an otherworldliness and sense of sorrow to the role. It’s a shame the movie isn’t as good as either the performance or its high concept—but if you want to see Bettany machine gun hordes of horrors, give this one a spin.
The film: Captain America and Iron Man finally work out their issues by pounding the crap out of each other, and most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe shows up as well.
The role: Bettany’s actually a founding member of the MCU, having voiced Tony Stark’s A.I. assistant J.A.R.V.I.S. all the way back in 2008’s Iron Man. Of course, in Age of Ultron he become super-powered android The Vision, and his received pronunciation and reserve has served him well in portraying the artificial hero. However, of all his appearances in MCU this is best. Why? The sweater, mainly – we just like the idea of a robot in an ugly sweater.