As acknowledged by that Jaguar ad not that long ago, British actors apparently make great movie villains. Whether it’s with the stereotypical, uber-posh cut-glass accent, or the broad cockney one, American movies love a good British villain.
We could spend a whole drunken pub afternoon trying to unpack the reasons and historical and social underpinnings for this, but let’s just assume that — when it comes to the posh-voiced British villain, anyway — it’s a combination of a mistrust of elitist authority, and of what Eddie Izzard said of the Brits:
We play bad guys in Hollywood movies because of the Revolutionary War. The French, who were on your side in the Revolutionary War, they play more esoteric characters. Their characters go, “I am Pierre. I have come from Paris. “I have come to have sex with your family.” “Help yourself. “Because of the debt of honor to General Lafayette.”
So are the best of the best.
Note 1: While all of these are played by British (or half-British) actors, some of the characters themselves may not actually British.
Note 2: For the sake of neatness, only one actor per role allowed.
Oh, and sorry, Mark Strong, your acting is impeccable and I love you, but your characters, though fantastically portrayed, won’t, I suspect, exactly resonate throughout the ages. One day someone will write a role worthy of your colossal talent. But until then it’s Lord Blackwood or Frank D’Amico that we’re left with (though I do pity anyone who hasn’t experienced Strong wax poetic about sharks in John Michael McDonagh’s hilarious The Guard).
Spoiler alert: here be a whole lotta white dudes.
Bill Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) - Gangs of New York
‘You see this knife? I’m gonna teach you to speak English with this fucking knife!’
Mediocre, latter-day-Scorsese picture with a typical try-hard Leo performance, but with a towering, all-the-scenery-chewing villain in the shape of Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of gang boss, Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting. Any time he’s onscreen the movie threatens to soar. The other times it’s…a well-built series of sets, I guess?
Dr Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) - Marathon Man
‘Is it safe?’
Director John Schlesinger and writer William Goldman gave Laurence Olivier the raw material to create one of the most terrifying scenes ever (you know the one), and an overall indelible and bone-chilling classic movie villain.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston) - The Avengers
‘I am Loki, of Asgard and I am burdened with glorious purpose.’
All praise to Joss Whedon and Tom Hiddleston for respectively writing and portraying by far the best super-villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. The playful god of mischief and his insecurities and all-too-human motivations elevate the material around him, giving the heroes of the first Avengers movie something compelling to kick against.
Magneto (Ian McKellen, Michael Fassbender) - The X-Men movies
‘Because there is no land of tolerance. There is no peace. Not here, or anywhere else.’
Comic book Magneto, ridiculous magenta costume aside, has always been an incredibly resonant villain. Having seen his family exterminated in the Nazi concentration camps as a child, his views on a tolerant world inhabited by peacefully co-existing humans and mutants are understandably distinct from his once and future friend and foe, Charles Xavier. Translating this conflicted, layered character to the big screen was a huge gamble, but somehow Bryan Singer and his team nailed it not just once, but twice. Actors of any less calibre than McKellen and Fassbender would simply not have done.
Ash (Ian Holm) - Alien
‘I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.’
The slimy little android. Ian Holm sells him perfectly well as a creature worthy of our disdain, but at the same time also our pity — unable as he is to counteract his programming, however that might impact the rest of the crew of the Nostromo.
Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) - A Clockwork Orange
‘Initiative comes to thems that wait.’
Anthony Burgess’ Alex DeLarge is a mercurial manifestation of pure, raging id, and Stanley Kubrick’s casting of Malcolm McDowell was one of those things that now seems like a cosmic inevitability. Who else could have brought this creature to life? Who else could have communicated to us everything we needed to know about what was going to transpire with just a single malevolent stare?
Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons) - Die Hard: With A Vengeance
‘Fort Knox? Ha! It’s for tourists!’
Sorry, Scar. You’re great at being bad. No-one’s doubting that. I just happen to have a real soft spot for Jeremy Iron’s Gruber brother. Riddles, red herrings, and a tank top — I dig your style, Simon dude. I dig it.
Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman) - The Fifth Element
‘You see, father, by causing a little destruction, I am in fact encouraging life.’
Another tough call, what with Gary Oldman providing more memorable villainous turns than almost anyone else (seriously, IMDB him. Even for someone who writes about movies his roster still has the power to surprise), but I had to go for his showing in The Fifth Element. Playful, hilariously attired, and winking-but-sincere, Zorg is just one colourful piece in a movie filled to the brim with them, and yet he still manages to stand out. The best part of it all is his almost existential struggles with his position on the villainous food chain: dominant, yet subservient to the ultimate evil that approaches. And Oldman (of course) absolutely kills it.
Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) - Star Wars
‘Enough of this! Vader, release him!’
Firstly: he tells Vader to do something, and Vader does it!
Secondly, while his real name is Wilhuff Tarkin, it’s his titled name that we know him by, and Grand Moff Tarkin is — after Sack Lodge from Wedding Crashers — probably the best character name ever written.
Thirdly, the dynamic of British VS. American accents was extra resonant on the Star Wars sets. Here, a story:
And for the Brits, that meant a truculent, unswerving adherence to union rules. Thus, shooting began on the dot of 8.30am. There were compulsory twice-daily tea breaks (with tea ladies wheeling carts constantly around the set) and a fixed hour-long lunch. And filming would stop dead at 5.30pm unless they were in the middle of a scene. In which case, union rules stated, there could be a vote on whether to continue for another 15 minutes. Lucas always pushed for a vote; he always lost.
More unpopular was the idea to make the story analogous to the American Revolution and have members of the heroic Rebel Alliance speak with American accents, while the evil Imperial Officers spoke with clipped Queen’s English. But almost all the supporting cast actors were British, giving the Rebels on Hoth a plucky WW2-era RAF feel. Their scenes had to be quickly re-dubbed in post production.
The deep divisions between the Americans and Brits remained. “During the filming in California, we’d be invited to these huge Lucasfilm barbecues,” [James Marquand] recalls. “On one side there’d be all the American crew, sat politely eating a wholesome picnic on checked blankets. And then there’d be the British crew by the pool - just slowly getting drunk. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing.”
Dr Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) - The Rocky Horror Picture Show
‘I see you shiver with antici… pation.’
As a live experience, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is unparalleled. As a standalone movie, watched without the benefit of communal experience and audience participation, it is — let’s be honest — not that strong. Except, that is, for Tim Curry’s luminous transvestite, Dr Frank-N-Furter. Menacing and beguiling in equal measure, it’s a portrayal for the ages.
Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious (Iain McDiarmid) - Star Wars
‘Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen.’
Functioning as The Big Bad behind The Most Iconic Big Bad in the original trilogy, Palpatine had to somehow appear more powerful and threatening than Darth Vader, while at the same time not one-upping him in the audience’s mind. Delivering just a few lines of dialogue from underneath the galaxy’s thickest hood, McDiarmid manages to walk that fine line exactly.
Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) - The Silence Of The Lambs
‘On a similar note I must confess to you, I’m giving very serious thought… to eating your wife.’
On a similar note to Hannibal’s confession there, I must also confess: as a character, he’s never done much for me. I recognise and respect the ripples that Hopkins’ portrayal of the sophisticated cannibal caused, but that’s about it.
Saruman (Christopher Lee) - The Lord of the Rings trilogy
‘There will be no dawn… for men.’
It’s Christopher fuckin’ Lee.
Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) - American Psycho
‘I have to return some videotapes.’
I’ve talked before about the sheer perfect mix of slimy self-delusion and barely contained capacity for ultra-violence that Christian Bale brings to the table with his Patrick Bateman, so I won’t repeat myself here, except to say that the best time you’ll ever have is to watch American Psycho again, but this time imagining all of Batman’s lines in Bale’s native Welsh accent. You can thank me later.
Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) - Sexy Beast
‘Why are you swearing? I’m not swearing.’
One of the scariest cinematic creations of all time, pure and simple. Ben Kingsley conjures up a whirling demon of simmering rage and murderous impulses. Hearing anyone do an impression of Logan you’d be forgiven for thinking it a cartoonish performance. On the contrary, while watching Sexy Beast only one emotion reigns: pure terror. Don Logan is terrifying because he seems real. He is not a superpowered villain from beyond the stars — he could walk off the street and into your life on any given weekday.
The Jackal (Edward Fox) - Day of the Jackal
‘The point is getting away with it. And speaking as a professional, that’s a very important consideration.’
Cold, ultra-methodical, and remorseless. Way back in 1973, Edward Fox gave us the ultimate screen hitman. His debonair appearance and urbane manner only makes the mechanism that powers him (it would feel wrong to call it a ‘soul’) all the more striking. The movie that The Jackal inhabits, directed by Fred Zinnemann, is very much like him: coiled tight, near-perfect, and forever marching onward towards the target.
Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) - Die Hard
‘“And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” Benefits of a classical education.’
The junior Gruber sibling is the perfect movie villain, never mind any national restrictions being applied to that. Charismatic, intelligent, and posing a genuine, evolving threat, every line of his is quotable — partly due to the writing, and partly due to Alan Rickman’s more-than-perfect delivery — and he does what all the best villains do: makes us partly, and against ourselves, root for him against our ostensible hero.
Bonus: Any voice Tony Jay ever recorded, because, damn, that voice!
This one’s not even a movie and I’ll allow it in here: