Over the weekend, I saw two new movies, both foreign-language, in which a slightly lumpy, wrinkled, lived-in middle-aged man was the main protagonist. The first – the Oscar-nominated In Darkness, a Polish film about a sewer worker in 1943 who helped a dozen Jews hide in the network of pipes beneath the city of Lviv – revolved around the real-life character Leopold Socha, played by a 44-year-old Polish actor called Robert Wieckiewicz.
The second, Carancho (which translates as “vulture”), is an Argentinian thriller about an insurance agent caught up in a corrupt compensation culture in modern-day Buenos Aires. He, Hector Sosa, is played by the 55-year-old Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin, whom you may have seen in the Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes.
Both men, and both men who play them, have experience etched into their faces. They are not young men. They are the type of man you’d shorthand as a husband, perhaps; a father. Neither actor is gym-toned or buff, both carry a little extra weight, and their faces are lined and somewhat puffy. None of this is intended to be insulting. Quite the opposite. Apologies for the reverse ageism, but I’d much rather see middle-aged actors than under-30s.
It would be wrong to generalise about foreign cinema here, but I’m going to anyway. It can’t be mere coincidence that a Polish film, and a South American one, allow a middle-aged actor to carry them. In both cases, we must believe that the character has been around the block, and in neither case is he supposed to be “a catch” in the traditional sense.
Socha is married, with a young daughter, and has worked hard all of his adult life, down the sewers. Sosa appears to be a bachelor, a lawyer who lost his licence, who now ekes out a seedy living as an ambulance-chaser, but whose awkward romance with a morphine-addicted paramedic must play out believably – and does, thanks to fine performances all round.
This is not to say that American or British films don’t revolve around older characters, but when they do – as with, say, last year’s Tyrannosaur, or this year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – it’s because of independent funding, or a deliberate demographic landgrab, respectively. And if it’s Hollywood, that middle-aged man had better be George Clooney.
Middle-aged men are allowed to be detectives, of course, but by and large, producers still seem to commercially chase a younger actor as the lead. (Perhaps this is why Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy seemed so refreshing, with the accent on a number of weather-beaten old men, and not their more virile younger colleagues.)
I applaud movies that dare to feature ravaged older men – and male actors approaching or past 50, who can be just as discriminated against as actresses, certainly in lead parts. But it does from recent memory seem that you’ve a better chance of seeing someone of “a certain age” in a French film (Potiche; Sarah’s Key), or an Italian one (Salt of Life), or a Danish one (A Better World), or even a South Korean one (Poetry).
I recommend both In Darkness and Carancho, by the way. I quite liked The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, as it happens, but by comparison it’s more like a meringue than a full meal.