Hayden Christensen as Anakin/Vader: the finest performance in a Star Wars film yet

Hayden Christensen as Anakin/Vader in the Star Wars prequel trilogy – I’m not the first to defend him, and as the years have gone by since the prequel films came out it has become less and less controversial to argue in his favour, or at least to argue that he shouldn’t be blamed anymore than any other prequel actor, which he certainly was for a long while.

However, I would go further (considerably further) and say that, if you overlook the worst of the romance dialogue that wouldn’t have sounded good coming from Marlon Brando, overall and all things considered Hayden Christensen’s performance as Anakin/Vader in episodes two and three is actually among the best acting showcased across all six Star Wars films.

Maybe you just laughed or scoffed, or shook your head with calm and closed the tab. Maybe you exclaimed “I’ve been saying that for years!” Stick with it, watch these few film clips as free of already established opinion as possible, read my little captions, and stay for the bulk of the argument afterwards – I think it is ultimately hard to disagree with, as much as you may so desperately want to

(credit for all videos used is at the very end)


From Attack of the Clones – containing the worst of the worst scenes and dialogue involving Christensen, yet still providing evidence:

A difficult thing to imagine, portraying a moment like this convincingly must be a fairly steep acting challenge, and yet Christensen, greatly inexperienced in film acting at the time, does exactly that – childish confusion and desperation breaking through pretense of maturity and calm.

Fear, anger, hate, suffering. He doesn’t have to say anything or even remain long on screen to portray excellently, effectively, how all of those steps towards the dark side come both in order and all at once in this scene, making such a crucial, pivotal moment, for character and entire 6-film saga story, believable and affecting – despite the fact that the structure of the prequel plot line and its messy character development gave the transition from Anakin to Vader little chance of believability or emotional heft, no matter whose shoulders it ultimately fell upon.

Far from the awkward and monotone moments, here he’s proving that he can act well with more than just physical presence and facial expression. Imbuing the speech fully with the immaturity, insecurity, and fear, as well as the decreasingly latent power, anger, and instability of his character at this stage in the story, and it isn’t the last time he shares a scene with a better, more experienced actor, herself dealing with the same dialogue and direction, and far outperforms her.

From Revenge of the Sith – providing the best and ample evidence:

This is a pretty damn convincing scene, certainly by Star Wars acting standards (which are not generally particularly high, to be honest (nor particularly low, either)). Both of them, particularly Christensen, demonstrating well and in only a few short minutes the mix and range of emotions their characters would be going through: the happiness and the surprise, the fear and the worry that comes from the awareness of their positions and situation, the reality of what the pregnancy could mean.

While the conversation that precedes it is very good from both actors, Christensen’s final moment in this scene, acting through facial expression alone, is really good. It isn’t a silly sudden change of expression from friendly to menacing as soon as Obi-Wan is out of sight in order to, as blatantly and as without subtlety as possible, portray the rising darkness in his character. It is, instead, a remarkably natural moment, showing how sincere the feelings of friendship, the pleasant goodbye, and his apologies for recent behaviour really were, and how equally real are the growing doubts, frustrations, fears, and dark machinations. In less than ten seconds, and without a word, he has laid out for the audience his character’s internal conflict, what remains of Anakin, what emerges of Vader.

If ever there was a single piece of evidence that any marring or spoiling of the prequel films is nearly entirely the fault of a certain person’s dialogue-composing skills, it is this scene from episode three. Neither onscreen actor speaks, and I think Christensen, in particular, does brilliantly. Star Wars is often far from subtle, but this is not one of those moments. You might be able to shout a cliched “NO” entirely convincingly, or make some ridiculous line of dialogue sound really quite respectable and serious, but what he is doing here is ultimately more impressive.

Again: he does brilliantly. If you showed this clip to somebody who knows neither Christensen nor Natalie Portman and asked them to choose who they think is likely to be the better actor, I’d be very surprised if they picked Portman, despite the fact that most of the rest of her career shows that she certainly is. The switching from optimism, naivety, and still-lingering unreadiness for his new position and power, to angry, unstable, delusional, confused, confident. Through his facial expressions and body language, his voice, the inflections, the hints of slight hesitations and stuttering betraying one side of him, the sudden drop in register or increase in volume betraying the other, he is showing us, in this scene, through his performance, part of his character being truly, finally killed off and becoming wholly replaced by the other. The dying off of the child, the one in love, the good person, is palpable and tragic. You can feel what’s left of Anakin drowning, still struggling for and grasping at the surface but wholly cognizant that it is far too far, and far too late. And this is all him: the dialogue he has to deliver is fine, and surely there was some direction and advice from other actors, but he is the one doing this. Watch it again. Watch all of these clips again. He, like all the other actors in the prequel films, occasionally gets it wrong. But when he gets it right, he gets it completely right.

Now look, I’m not saying he was in these films showing signs of being some nascent Daniel Day-Lewis or Heath Ledger.* However, watching these clips with as fresh an eye and as open a mind as possible, it is undeniable that Christensen got his character across quite brilliantly, perfectly at times, and better than most others did with theirs in Episodes 1, 2, and 3. You might argue that I’m only making him look good by taking a few scenes and showing them out of context, but, to be honest, in order to make him look bad you’d have to do exactly the same thing, ignoring a not inconsiderable chunk of his performance across the two films that he’s in. There are more clips in his favour: you could add, on top of those used here, the intro to Revenge of the Sith and the stolen speeder chase from early on in Attack of the Clones, in which both Christensen and McGregor do very well with what they were given in order to portray the fraternal, frustrating relationship between the two characters. If the prequel trilogy had started at a different point, perhaps even the point at which Attack of the Clones begins but with three whole films to go, there would have been much more time to develop that and would lend far more weight to their final scene together in episode three. Yet, considering how little the two of them had to work with, and considering how the whole first film was wasted spending time bringing the two characters together to set up the rest of the story, the fact that those scenes on Mustafar are as deeply affecting as they are regardless demonstrates just how brilliantly both actors do.

Besides Christensen and McGregor, there are other stand-out performances across both trilogies, such as: Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine across the prequels and final (until The Force Awakens) film; Frank Oz’s voice-acting for Yoda in five and six (but not the prequels), and, of course; Harrison Ford as Han Solo. But, as undeniably great and perfect-fits as many of them were, none of the original trilogy actors had to do anything terribly sophisticated. The plot was simpler and free of convolution, the physical demands on any of the actors were often less, their character’s motivations and developments much easier to portray, the writing and directing superior and crowd-sourced, the sets and props and puppets almost all real to interact with, unlike the considerable green screen and CGI of the prequels. The performances in the original films come across as much more effortless because it would have been much less effort. When you consider the burden on Christensen due to the character he’s playing, the much greater share of dreadful dialogue he had to bear up against, the sheer emotional range and complexity that his character is supposed to be experiencing across too brief a time on screen, the physical presence and ability required, along with the burdens faced by all actors in the prequels (more complex, convoluted plot, poorer direction and script, too many green screens to interact with etc.), and not forgetting his significant relative lack of acting and film-set experience when compared to the likes of Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, and most of the others, then to me, that through all these clips (and more unused here) there comes across a solid, at times perfect, performance, successfully developing a challenging and crucial character across two films against all those Star Wars prequel odds, is fairly remarkable.

It’s not just Christensen’s performance that is tarnished by certain moments, leaving it unfairly regarded in people’s memories. To show just how easily the prequel trilogy could be edited down into one long and excellent prequel film, using mostly episodes two and three, about the rise of the Empire and the backstory of Vader and Obi Wan that would stand equal alongside the original trilogy and the sequel trilogy that is about to begin, watch this clip, but stop it at 3.00, and restart it at 3.48:

That scene is so perfectly representative of the prequel trilogy as a whole. That short section I told you to skip ruins what would have been absolutely perfect, as good a moment as any from the original trilogy, if not the best moment of all six films due to its sheer story significance.

To go from that magnificent moment where the helmet is finalised, then the pause, then the breathing, to… well, to the thing that happens next…

To go from Anakin telling Padme of how he killed Tusken Raider men, women and children, with the Imperial March coming in at the end, to one of their dates or romantic evenings…

So close, so far.

There is much within the prequel trilogy to be extremely glad of, and Hayden Christensen’s performance as Anakin/Vader really is, overall and all things considered, among the most outstanding parts of the prequels, and easily among the top acting performances from all six Star Wars films. If the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker becoming Darth Vader is successfully shown then it is due to John Williams, Ewan McGregor, and, above all, Hayden Christensen. In fact, if you take his best few moments and pit them against the best few moments of all other actors from all of the six films, whether you factor in the challenges and odds stacked against actors in the prequels and his relative inexperience or not, Hayden Christensen’s portrayal of Anakin reluctantly, tragically, and yet all too easily becoming Vader just about wins out as the finest acting from any actor in either trilogy.

And even if you don’t agree with me, you know it could have been worse:

 

*Can you imagine that character being played by either of them…

Credit for the videos, in the order they appear:

  1. Star Wars Deaths
  2. Benguitar9000
  3. “May the force be with you.”
  4. Marcelo Zuniga
  5. Marcelo Zuniga
  6. Marcelo Zuniga
  7. (Heart symbol)
  8. reconelement
  9. I LOVE Hayden Christensen…

 

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