The action-thriller Wanted hits theaters this week, and though it’s toplined by one of the biggest stars in the world (Angelina Jolie), it also features a young Scotsman who’s making a name for himself as well: James McAvoy.
On these shores, McAvoy first earned notice for his work in HBO’s Band of Brothers and the Sci-Fi Channel’s Children of Dune. Since then, his star has risen, and it’s not hard to see why; McAvoy plays characters of fundamental decency and charm, and has become something of a heartthrob with bookish ladies. Here’s a rundown of McAvoy’s best-reviewed work to date.
Bright Young Things (2004, 65 percent)
After years of acclaimed theatrical and television performances in the UK, McAvoy crossed the pond to US cinemas — albeit joined by a formidable collection of Brit acting talent — in Bright Young Things. Stephen Fry‘s directorial debut wryly follows the social goings-on of young upper-crust Britons in the 1930s, complete with scandal, romantic triangles, and generational conflict. It would seem difficult to stand out in a cast that features Richard E. Grant, Emily Mortimer, Simon Callow, Jim Broadbent, and Peter O’Toole, but McAvoy holds his own, playing a needy, manipulative scandal-sheet writer who still inspires empathy. “Newcomer James McAvoy [is] very good,” wrote Derek Elley of Variety.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005, 75 percent)
It’s not easy for an actor to establish a memorable screen persona when surrounded by acting heavyweights in the midst of a fantasy world while wearing a funny costume. But as Mr. Tumnus, a faun who acts as the welcome wagon for the Pevensie children in Narnia, McAvoy still managed to create an indelible impression — again playing a morally-conflicted character who ultimately does the right thing. “Mr. Tumnus is simply one of the most jaw-dropping cinematic creatures invented yet, a stunning mix of filmmaking wizardry and McAvoy’s soulful and physical thesping,” wrote Laura Clifford of Reeling.
Atonement (2007, 83 percent)
Though he’d turned in some outstanding performances before, it was Atonement that provided McAvoy with his first big break. In a Golden Globe-nominated performance, McAvoy plays Robbie, the decent, hard-working son of a housekeeper on a posh estate with dreams of becoming a doctor. He’s carried a torch for Cecilia (Keira Knightly), the eldest daughter of the upper-class Tallis clan. After tip-toeing around each other for years, the pair finally acknowledge a mutual attraction — but their nascent romance is thwarted when Cecelia’s younger sister (perhaps intentionally) misinterprets the nature of a late-night meeting — and lands Robbie in the slammer. The rest of Atonement deals with the ramifications of that night, and it’s a devastating portrait of star-crossed love. “Most people will recognize Knightley, but it’s McAvoy who will have you talking after the credits roll,” wrote Willie Waffle of WaffleMovies.com.
The Last King of Scotland (2006, 87 percent)
It’s no insult to McAvoy to say he doesn’t give the best performance in The Last King of Scotland. He’s merely excellent, while Forest Whittaker, playing Ugandan strongman Idi Amin, is borderline possessed. But McAvoy’s role is just as important; playing Garrigan, Amin’s (fictional) personal doctor, he helps the audience understand the magnetic pull of evil, especially when it’s veiled (initially, at least) in magnanimity. Garrigan begins his journey to Uganda as a naïve liberal, gets in Amin’s good graces after a chance meeting, rationalizes the leader’s methods even as evidence mounts of genocide, and ultimately finds himself in over his head. It’s a tricky balancing act, but McAvoy pulls it off. “Whitaker and McAvoy inhabit their roles so fully that the film around them transforms into a major document of 1970s cultural myopia,” wrote Gabriel Shanks of Modern Fabulosity.
Starter for 10 (2007, 89 percent)
McAvoy excelled as an awkward, trivia-obsessed working-class collegian in this coming-of-age romantic comedy. McAvoy won high praise for his performance as Brian Jackson, an ambitious student who dreams of impressing the lads in his hometown by participating on a televised quiz show — and overcoming his ineptitude with the ladies. Set in the 1980s, Starter for 10 examines the era’s class politics without shorting on laughs, and McAvoy — portraying a flawed but earnest character — helped to elevate it above mere formula. “James McAvoy may be the most likable British newcomer since Ewan McGregor,” wrote Desson Thomson of the Washington Post. “His glistening eyes can seduce audiences with their ability to show conflicting emotions.”
And, finally, here’s a musical interlude from the 2005 made-for-TV movie ShakespeaRe-Told: