When you mention Hugh Jackman to any discerning cinephile, or drop his name in a game of Dream Casting, people will sneer. "That man cannot act." At best, they'll say "Well, he's really good as Wolverine!" before complimenting his physique.
While he certainy is good as Wolverine, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with his rippling definition, he can act. It seems he can't pick a script to save his life, but he can act.
Let's go back, back, way back to 2006 when he had a year where he steered clear of romantic comedies, empty action flicks, and X-Men spin-offs. I don't know how the stars aligned for him, or how the good scripts made their way to the top, but he had two stellar films: The Prestige and The Fountain. He was very good in the former, though in the end The Prestige just demanded a lot of grimness and obsession (though he does a sly switch-up job with his accent). It was The Fountain that he really shined in. I remember thinking "Finally, he's going to get some good scripts now!" but then he went and made Deception. I have confidence he'll pull another hat trick (yes, I'll count 2006's Flushed Away -- he was really very cute in it) but for now, his best role is The Fountain.
His work in The Fountain is intense and understated, and a few scenes of screams and growls, he's hardly Wolverine. What's remarkable upon multiple viewings of this movie is that Jackman is not playing a particularly nice guy. Beneath all the love, longing, and obsession is a man unfailingly rational and paternalistic. He seems to almost humor her book and her whims, making cracks about her poor knowledge of science, and chiding her for doing silly things like sitting in the snow barefoot.
Part of his attitude is naturally that of a doctor and patient. But considering Izzy and Tommy are human stand-ins for one of the film's themes (Faith versus Science), I think we're supposed to see his attitude as one that doesn't have a lot of time for the humanities and unprovable things. He's so proud of himself for having remembered Izzy's Mayan mythology that I get the impression that he's a guy who didn't listen to her personal interests and obsessions a hell of a lot. Now that the end is looming, he's trying to make a little more of an effort. Of course, he still fails massively, since his determination to cure her is blinding him to the first walk in the snow, to spending the night with her, to understand anything she's saying until it's too late.
It takes courage to play a character who has nagging human flaws like that. A lot of actors want their characters to be completely sympathetic and wonderful, and may have begged off being a bit of a jerk to their dying onscreen wife. But Jackman -- a man who tends to favor the crowd pleasing characters -- actually does it, and so well that you really want to slap him. He's so callously rude when she asks him to take a walk with her that you cringe for yourself as well as her. Who hasn't received that tone of voice before from a loved one? You're lucky if you haven't.
But even when he's curt and cold, you feel for him. The performance walks that fine line of understandable obsession. Every one of Tommy Creo's frayed nerves are visible. He's not a man who has been eating, sleeping, or washing regularly. (Has Jackman ever looked greasier?) Watching him work makes you feel that sickly sensation of being beyond bone tired -- something we've probably all felt hanging around a hospital or a phone, waiting and desperate.
Then there's his breaking point. When Tommy sits alone in their bedroom and just cries, it's so naked and raw that it makes you uncomfortable. You don't feel as though you should be watching it. This isn't Hollywood grief of perfectly timed tears, or the usual masculine approach of manfully brushing them away or looking off into the distance. His nose is stuffed up, his eyes are raw, and he's choking on his own heartbreak. You have the distinct feeling you should do something. Hug him? Pat him on the back and tell him it's going to be ok? Give him some Kleenex? Or should you just leave?
When Jackman's resume includes Van Helsing and Kate & Leopold, it may feel a bit like shooting fish in a barrel to pick his best role. But that's exactly the kind of attitude that makes us forget just how good he is, and how much potential he has outside of his Wolverine franchise. Every time I think that's all he wants to be (and I don't think there's anything truly wrong with just wanting to make moviegoers happy), he goes and does a little something on stage like A Steady Rain which suggests he hungers for something a little deeper than popcorn. Thankfully, he satisfied that urge once with The Fountain .