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Pete Postlethwaite 1946 - 2011

Posted by Ty Burr  January 3, 2011 01:56 PM

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Postlethwaite.jpgBy dint of physiognomy -- that gaunt frame; the adam's apple like a raw fist; big, sad eyes that had seen things you were glad you hadn't -- Pete Postlethwaite was a valued character actor. And like all the greats of his tribe, from Peter Lorre to Steve Buscemi, you could argue that he was ill-served by the film industry. He was too funny-looking for lead roles yet possessed of a squirrely, unpredictable energy that the movies know they need if the leads are to be taken at all seriously. He was the reality principle and, in his most striking appearances, he was threat personnified.

It was the gentleness of Postlethwaite when he was at rest that was scary, because you knew that when his characters were finally stirred to action, they would visit no mercy upon anyone's heads. This much was clear in the part that brought him to attention, as the hero's father in Terence Davies' 1988 "Distant Voices, Still Lives." Here's the film's opening sequence; watch how the tone shifts from mourning to appalled witness as Postlethwaite's Da returns from the dead in all his fury.

He came to greater fame -- and received his only notice from the Academy, a best supporting actor nomination -- as another patriarch, Daniel Day-Lewis's sacrificial lamb of a dad in "In the Name of the Father." And here's where audiences began to take notice of the man's range, as his Giuseppe here is as complex and considered as the earlier role is plain fury.

Postlethwaite died yesterday at 64, after a long battle with cancer -- it seemed from his stricken face that he was always battling an inner ravaging. He brought gravity, wit, finesse, and grounding to movies like "The Usual Suspects," and many more. As Friar Laurence in "Romeo+Juliet," he was the only one to bother with iambic pentameter. A working-class Brit -- his dad a milkman in the mornings and a carpenter in the afternoons -- Postlethwaite had to fight his way out of his own family to become an actor and he rose out of many years of teaching drama to becoming a known and reliable quantity on screen and in television.

He never had a lead role, other than in a handful of British made-for-TV movies and a 2000 BBC mini-series, "The Sins," which I haven't seen. But Postlethwaite went out in style with two 2010 movies that guarantee him a spot in our generational memories. The first is the father -- again -- of Cillian Murphy's dreams in "Inception," dying by degrees and either withholding his love or asking for forgiveness, depending upon how deep into the dream you want to go. In fact, Postlethwaite is the ultimate hinge upon which the movie's emotional melodrama swings, and his ragged face and voice are used to convey both unyielding coldness and the heart that finally thaws before it stops beating.

In Ben Affleck's "The Town," he's the note of authenticity the movie needs: A diffident immigrant Charlestown florist who, once you get past the roses and posies, is the neighborhood's vicious crime kingpin. Postlethwaite got us to believe both sides of Fergie Colm, and when the character was gunned down, you felt something rude and real leave the theater. Likewise, someone rare and real has left the movies for good.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

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