Cillian Murphy, an accomplished Irish actor, has carved a unique path in film and television. With his distinctive looks, intense presence, and diverse roles, he has gained recognition for his captivating performances. Despite his remarkable talent, he often remains an enigma, quietly delivering powerful performances that leave a lasting impact on audiences.
Beginning on stage and transitioning seamlessly to screen, Murphy’s career showcases his versatility. From his early theater work to iconic roles in films like 28 Days Later and Inception, he has consistently demonstrated his exceptional acting prowess. This has led to some of his equally impressive yet underrated roles, such as his portrayals in Disco Pigs, Breakfast on Pluto, and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, standing as a testament to his craft and underappreciated talent.
10 ‘Disco Pigs’ (2001)
Based on a play by Enda Walsh, Disco Pigs follows the intense friendship between Runt (Elaine Cassidy) and Pig (Cillian Murphy), who were born on the same day in the same hospital. Their intense bond isolates them from the outside world, creating a unique universe filled with rituals and a language only they understand. As they enter adulthood, their relationship becomes increasingly complex and volatile.
From his childlike innocence to his unsettling obsession with Runt, Murphy’s portrayal of Pig is raw, intense, and emotionally charged. Despite its unique narrative and Murphy’s compelling performance, however, Disco Pigs received mixed reviews upon release due to its challenging nature. As Murphy’s career progressed and he gained recognition for other roles, his performance in Disco Pigs may not have received the attention it truly deserves.
9 ‘On the Edge’ (2001)
Jonathan Breech (Cillian Murphy) is a troubled young man struggling with emotional turmoil and mental health issues. After a failed suicide attempt, he is sent to a mental institution for treatment. There, he meets Dr. Figure (Stephen Rea), a psychiatrist who attempts to help Jonathan confront his inner demons. As Jonathan navigates his therapy and forms connections with fellow patients, the film delves into themes of redemption, self-discovery, and the power of human connection.
Regardless of the movie’s focus on mental health and the depth of Murphy’s acting, On the Edge remains relatively underrated. The film’s limited release and the fact that it was one of Murphy’s early roles before he gained widespread recognition might be the contributing factors as to why his performance remains underrated. Nevertheless, Murphy’s portrayal in On the Edge showcases his ability to convey intense emotions and intricate psychological states, foreshadowing his future success as an actor.
8 ‘The Party’ (2017)
Sally Potter’s black comedy movie The Party revolves around a celebratory gathering that quickly devolves into chaos. The film follows Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), a politician, who hosts an intimate dinner party to celebrate her recent promotion. As the evening unfolds, long-buried secrets and personal conflicts come to light, leading to a series of confrontations and revelations among the guests. The characters, each with agendas and hidden motives, clash in witty and sharp dialogue, exposing their vulnerabilities and flaws.
One of those guests is Tom (Cillian Murphy), a financier who arrives at a dinner party with a mysterious package. Throughout the film, Tom’s seemingly charismatic yet enigmatic characteristics gradually turn to reveal his true intentions. Murphy’s portrayal captures Tom’s charm while also delving into the darker complexities of his personality. His performance adds a layer of tension to the film’s dynamics, creating an intriguing contrast with the other characters.
7 ‘Anthropoid’ (2016)
The 2016 movie Anthropoid is a historical thriller based on true events during World War II. Set in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, it follows the daring mission of two Czech operatives, Josef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan), who are parachuted into their homeland to assassinate SS officer Reinhard Heydrich (Detlef Bothe), one of the architects of the Holocaust. As they plan and execute the operation, the film delves into the tense and consequential challenges they face, their connections with local resistance fighters, and the moral dilemmas of their mission.
Although a central character, Murphy’s performance often goes underappreciated in discussions about the film, overshadowed by the larger narrative. Murphy’s ability to convey emotion through subtlety and his portrayal of Gabčík’s internal turmoil contribute significantly to the film’s emotional resonance. His and Dornan’s performances remind us of the complexity of historical figures and the sacrifices they made, even in the face of adversity and danger.
6 ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ (2003)
Girl with a Pearl Earring is a historical drama that fictionalizes the creation of Johannes Vermeer‘s famous painting of the same name. It follows the life of Griet (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman from a modest background who becomes a maid in Vermeer’s household. As Griet navigates the complexities of her new environment, she catches the artist, Vermeer’s (Colin Firth) attention and becomes his muse. Griet’s presence and the enigmatic portrait she inspires become a focal point for the conflicts between art, class, desire, and self-expression.
Murphy’s role in the movie is that of Pieter, a talented local butcher, and Griet’s potential love interest. He portrays Pieter as a charming and enigmatic figure who is genuinely attracted to Griet but also embodies the limitations and expectations of his social class. Due to the prominence of other cast members, Murphy’s portrayal is often left unnoticed, even though he skillfully captures the nuances of a character integral to the story’s intricate dynamics.
5 ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ (2015)
In the Heart of the Sea is based on the true events that inspired Herman Melville‘s novel Moby-Dick. The film follows the ill-fated whaling voyage of the American whaling ship Essex in 1820. The crew, led by Captain George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker), encounters a massive and vengeful sperm whale that attacks their ship, leaving them stranded thousands of miles from land. As they struggle to survive, facing starvation, dehydration, and desperation, the crew faces not only the brutal elements of the open ocean but also their fears and conflicts.
Murphy plays the character Matthew Joy, a skilled and experienced sailor aboard the whaling ship Essex who quickly forms a bond with the first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). He serves as the second mate and is a loyal and competent crew member, maintaining a level-headedness in the face of adversity. Regardless of its average ratings, Murphy and the other cast members’ determination, which involved an intense diet to lose considerable weight for their respective roles, immersed the viewers in the harrowing journey of survival and the psychological toll it takes on the crew as they battle nature and themselves.
4 ‘Broken’ (2012)
Broken revolves around the life of an 11-year-old girl named Emily “Skunk” Cunningham (Eloise Laurence), who witnesses a violent incident involving her neighbor Mr. Oswald (Rory Kinnear). As she navigates her innocence and the complexities of the adult world, the incident sets off a chain of events that exposes the underlying tensions and interconnected lives of those living in her suburban community. Skunk’s relationships with her family, friends, and the people around her are deeply affected by the incident, ultimately leading to a series of revelations and emotional transformations.
In the movie, Murphy portrays Mike Kiernan, a single father and high school teacher who is also the love interest of the protagonist’s mother. Though not the central character, Murphy’s portrayal of Mike projects a poignant presence, capturing the character’s kindness, complexity, and struggles as a single parent. Often overshadowed by more prominent roles in his career, his understated yet powerful performance in Broken showcases his versatility and contributes to the film’s emotional depth.
3 ‘Sunshine’ (2007)
Directed by Danny Boyle and set in the future, Sunshine is a science fiction thriller that follows a team of astronauts on a perilous mission to reignite a dying sun using a massive stellar bomb. As they approach the sun, they face technical challenges, psychological stress, and the daunting realization that a previous mission had failed. As the crew members face their fears and the increasing heat, their mission becomes a battle for survival.
Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy) is the physicist responsible for delivering the bomb to reignite the dying sun. Murphy’s portrayal is subtle and introspective, reflecting the weight of the mission on Capa’s shoulders. Despite his pivotal role, the movie’s thematic depth and visually captivating scenes sometimes overshadow the nuances of Murphy’s acting, making his performance in Sunshine an overlooked gem in his career. Other notable stars such as Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, and more also star in this film.
2 ‘Breakfast on Pluto’ (2005)
Breakfast on Pluto follows the journey of Patrick “Kitten” Braden, played by Cillian Murphy, a transgender woman who embarks on a search for her long-lost mother amidst the tumultuous backdrop of 1970s Ireland. The film received generally positive reviews for its unique storytelling, Murphy’s standout performance, and its poignant exploration of LGBTQ+ issues.
Murphy’s performance as a transgender person can be considered controversial due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter, particularly on discussions that might arise about representation and whether casting a cisgender actor in a transgender role is appropriate. Moreover, the film doesn’t shy away from discussing issues such as “transphobia, violence, prostitution, and sectarianism.” There is no denying that Murphy’s remarkable portrayal captured the essence of Kitten’s resilience and unwavering spirit as she navigates a world that often misunderstands and mistreats her.
1 ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ (2006)
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a historical drama directed by Ken Loach, set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War. It follows two brothers, Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Pádraic Delaney), who join the Irish Republican Army to fight against British rule but later find themselves on opposing sides during the Civil War. The film is recognized for its powerful storytelling and exploration of a turbulent period in Irish history. However, its portrayal of historical events has also led to some controversy and discussions about its accuracy.
The movie received critical acclaim, winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Despite the critical acclaim and awards garnered by the film, however, Murphy’s performance in this role often goes relatively unnoticed in discussions about his career. This might be due to the larger ensemble cast and the film’s focus on the broader historical narrative, sometimes overshadowing individual performances. However, Murphy’s portrayal is a crucial anchor to the emotional journey of the film, contributing to its depth and impact.
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