Back in July, the release of Midsommar triggered me to do a deep-dive into the IMDb of Jack Reynor and I shared my findings with you, dear readers. Now, the release of 1917 and True History of the Kelly Gang has prompted a similar response in me, as a reaction to the incredible central performances of George MacKay. Still only 27 years old, MacKay has already racked up 40 credits on his IMDb page, due to the fact that he got his big break at the tender age of 10 in the 2003 version of Peter Pan. I already had a fair bit of experience with MacKay before 1917, in the likes of Private Peaceful, Pride and Captain Fantastic. However, for many, he has seemingly come from nowhere to carry a Best Picture nominee almost entirely on his shoulders.
So, I thought I’d take it upon myself to explore some of the more obscure corners of MacKay’s back-catalogue and show you what I’ve discovered. The good news is: these 20 titles feature George doing a variety of accents and three (3!) musicals. Thanks to MacKay’s recent realisation that he hadn’t worked with enough women directors, he has worked with five (5!) in the last two years (unfortunately I couldn’t find one of the them – Nuclear directed by Catherine Linstrum).
Here’s to continuing this not-terribly-regular series of deep-dives…
1) Peter Pan (PJ Hogan, 2003)
I feel like each generation has their version of Pan. From the classic Disney animated version (which will surely be remade as live-action soon – sigh), through to Hook (1991), Finding Neverland (2004), multiple Tinker Bell animated movies and now Sundance 2020 has two spins on the tale – Wendy and Come Away. The 2003 version is actually pretty solid (despite being a box office bomb), with Jason Isaacs taking on the dual Mr Darling/Captain Hook roles. Baby MacKay plays Curly, one of the Lost Boys.
2) Defiance (Edward Zwick, 2008)
The best thing I can say about Defiance is that it has a really good score. Apparently based on a true story, this film involves two 40 year olds (Daniel Craig and Liev Shreiber) having a 20 year old brother (Jamie Bell) and a 15 year old brother (MacKay). And they’re all Russian Jews. The three older brothers seem to forget about MacKay for large swathes of this film. It’s set in the woods and is a bit like Robin Hood but instead of robbing the rich, it’s fighting Nazis? I don’t know. This has a bizarrely good cast for some reason, including Mia Wasikowska, Jodhi May, Alexa Davalos (The Man in the High Castle) and Mark Margolis (Breaking Bad).
3) The Boys are Back (Scott Hicks, 2009)
Clive Owen plays a British journalist living in Australia with his wife Laura Fraser and six year old son Artie. His wife dies and he struggles as a single Dad. Things are further complicated when his older son from his previous marriage, Harry (MacKay), comes to stay from England. It’s really well acted by Owen, as he navigates grief while trying to decide how best to raise his sons. MacKay gets a few moments to shine and you can see his acting potential. MacKay’s Dad is Australian and he’s made a few movies there, including his most recent one.
4) Hunky Dory (Marc Evans, 2011)
This musical stars Minnie Driver as a drama teacher in a 1970s Welsh comprehensive school, attempting to put on a musical version of The Tempest, with songs by Bowie, 10cc, ELO, Rush, Roxy Music, The Byrds, Nick Drake etc. Aneurin Barnard plays the star of the musical, Davey and he’s got some decent pipes on him, as has Tom Rhys Harries as Evan. MacKay only has a small role, as a member of a band who all fall out during the course of the film. Driver is great though and I’m all in favour of British and Irish musicals. Throw Shakespeare in the mix and I am SOLD. Best song: Cello Song.
5) Private Peaceful (Pat O’Connor, 2012)
Before 1917, MacKay visited World War One in an episode of Birdsong (one of Eddie Redmayne’s best roles) and in this film based on the book by Michael Morpurgo (who also wrote War Horse). Private Peaceful is a text familiar to British school kids, about two brothers Tommo (McKay) and Charlie (Jack O’Connell) and their best childhood friend Molly (Alexandra Roach). The brothers’ rivalry over Molly is interrupted by the war. Their Mum is played by the brilliant Maxine Peake and the supporting cast also has Frances de la Tour as Grandma Wolf and Richard Griffiths as The Colonel. MacKay and O’Connell are both brilliant.
6) The Best of Men (Tim Whitby, 2012)
Moving from World War One to World War Two, this is a lovely British film about how the Paralympics first started out. German-Jewish doctor Ludwig Guttman comes to Stoke Mandeville Hospital to assist men who have been paralysed through war injuries. He sets about weaning them off high doses of morphine and sedatives, getting them sitting up and moving about. He then encourages them to try different sports and other activities to increase their upper-body strength and to help them mentally, as well as physically. MacKay plays William, a 20 year old whose parents want to ship off to a retirement home, basically writing his life off. He has great chemistry with Rob Brydon, playing Wynne Bowen, a cantankerous chatterbox. MacKay is typically wonderful, moving from thoroughly dejected and defeated, to realising he has hope.
7) Sunshine on Leith (Dexter Fletcher, 2013)
Musicals from the UK and Ireland are a niche genre but some really unusual films have come out in recent years – including Sing Street, God Help the Girl, Anna and the Apocalypse and London Road. A musical based on the songs of The Proclaimers doesn’t sound like the most promising prospect, but this does well at combining a low-budget indie drama starring Jane Horrocks and Peter Mullan, with the characters breaking into song every once in a while. MacKay plays Davy and Kevin Guthrie plays Ally – two soldiers adjusting to life back on civvy street. Antonia Thomas – a fantastic and beautiful actress (from Misfits and Lovesick) should be way more famous than she is. MacKay can sing and dance and the best thing is that he just goes for it, no matter the context. I hope there are more musicals in his future. Best song: Over and Done With.
8) How I Live Now (Kevin MacDonald, 2013)
American Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) goes to visit her English Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor) and cousins Eddie (MacKay), Isaac (baby Tom Holland, still with his chin mole) and Piper (Harley Bird) in their isolated cottage in the countryside. She and Eddie fall in love (why did they have to be cousins? Why?!). While Aunt Penn is away, some unspecified apocalyptic event takes place (that seems more like nuclear war than zombies?) and the kids try and stick it out at the cottage by hiding in a barn. Eventually they are caught by the military and separated, with the boys being sent to one camp and the girls another. Daisy and Piper escape their camp and try to make it back to Eddie and Isaac at the cottage. Ronan and MacKay really started dating while making this film and they’re both great actors, even if the film is slightly questionable.
9) For Those in Peril (Paul Wright, 2013)
This was MacKay’s second Scottish film of 2013 (after Sunshine on Leith) and he really perfected the accent here. MacKay plays Aaron, a fisherman whose boat was in an accident which killed his brother, as well as four other men. Aaron was the sole survivor and he can’t remember anything that happened, making him a source of suspicion in his small community. Aaron is very much stuck in the ‘denial’ stage of grief and he becomes obsessed with the idea that his brother and the others could still be alive, because their bodies were never found. He is determined to find them. This is another powerhouse central role for MacKay, who carries the film (something he has done more and more) and Kate Dickie is typically wonderful as his Mother.
10) Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014)
Pride tells the true story of a group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners which was formed during the 1980s, during the devastating and debilitating miners strikes. The group, whose founder members are: Mark (Ben Schnetzer), Jonathan (Dominic West), Gethin (Andrew Scott), Mike (Joe Gilgun), Jeff (Freddie Fox) and Steph (Faye Marsay) visit a small village in Wales to personally provide their support and are met with varying degrees of opposition and warm acceptance by the locals, including Hefina (Imelda Staunton), Cliff (Bill Nighy) and Dai (Paddy Considine). MacKay plays Joe (as the audience’s way-in to the story), a young amateur photographer who tentatively joins the group to help document their activities. This is an excellent British film with a top-notch cast, which is well worth watching.
11) Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories (Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, 2016)
This series of four short films is based on a selection of short stories by Neil Gaiman. They feature some great British acting talent and music by Jarvis Cocker. I’ve seen the first two – Foreign Parts (starring MacKay) and Feeders & Eaters (starring Tom Hughes). The Tom Hughes one is honestly better than MacKay’s, but this is still worth watching. You can buy the whole season for $3 on Amazon Prime in the US at the moment (not sure about UK availability). There are seven other short films on MacKay’s IMDb, so it’s clearly a format he likes working in. Foreign Parts is basically about a young man who um…loses control of his…um, part. As with something like Black Mirror, the less you know going in, the better.
12) Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016)
Despite typically being strong with accents – whether it’s Scottish, Australian or American – Captain Fantastic is one example of a slightly shaky one from MacKay. In the same year, he also did a great Kentucky one in 11.22.63, but the more generic American one on offer here occasionally slips. Having said that, it’s still a fantastic (groan) performance, of course, as Bo – the eldest of the six children of Ben (Viggo Mortensen) who are brought up “off the grid,” in the wild. When their mother takes her own life, the family must gatecrash her funeral in order to try and comply with her Buddist wishes. Mortensen was actually my choice for Best Actor in the year he was nominated for this. MacKay has played the eldest brother (often in large families) four times (The Boys are Back, Captain Fantastic, Marrowbone and How I Live Now) and he always has great chemistry with the actors playing his younger siblings. I think this movie suffered slightly from having a confusing title and comparisons with Little Miss Sunshine (the quirky poster, the presence of the bus), but it’s definitely worth a watch, even if it does get slightly ridic towards the end.
13) 11.22.63 (Bridget Carpenter – Creator, 2016)
I am something of a JFK nerd and have read many books about him, including this 850-page epic by Stephen King. In this time-travel novel, Jake Epping is sent back from the present day by his friend Al to the 1960s, in an attempt to stop JFK being assassinated. I was excited to hear about the book being turned into a TV show, but then learned that it would star James Franco, which put me off. I’m glad I’ve watched it now, however. It has a great supporting cast including Chris Cooper as Al, Sarah Gadon as Sadie, a woman that Jake falls in love with and MacKay as Bill, who helps him monitor Lee Harvey Oswald. MacKay does a Kentucky accent as Bill and it’s a very different role for him. Bill falls for Lee Harvey Oswald’s wife, Marina, which understandably puts a spanner in the works. MacKay hasn’t done that much TV, but it would be good to see him doing roles that give him a chance to show his range and an arc that can go across a longer time period than movies allow for.
14) Marrowbone (Sergio G. Sanchez, 2017)
Marrowbone is about an English family in the 1960s, who move to a large ramshackle (but gorgeous) home in Maine, USA with their sickly mother, clearly trying to escape something traumatic in their past. MacKay plays eldest brother Jack, Stranger Things’ Charlie Heaton plays Billy, Mia Goth plays Jane and Matthew Stagg plays youngest sibling Sam. When their mother passes away, the family go into secluded and secretive hiding, until Jack turns 21 and can legally look after the younger ones. Anya Taylor-Joy plays local girl Allie, who Jack falls in love with. To go into the plot in any more detail would be to spoil, but safe to say, there are plenty of twists and turns. The period setting and the Gothic-influenced spooky atmosphere are hugely up my street, but this film goes massively off the rails in the final third. It is one of MacKay’s best performances, however, as he desperately tries to hold his family together.
15) Where Hands Touch (Amma Asante, 2018)
This film was hugely controversial when it came out and was not a success, critically or financially. It’s a shame, because it’s a far more nuanced and thoughtful piece than internet outrage would have you believe. Set in Germany in World War Two, Asante explores the little-known world of mixed-race German children and how they were viewed in Nazi Germany. The controversial aspect is that Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) has a romance with a member of Hitler Youth, Lutz (MacKay). The film was accused of “humanising Nazis.” In an interview in The Independent (May 2019), MacKay responded to these criticisms by saying; “The Nazis were humans. A Nazi is not a different breed of person. We’ve separated the ideas of Nazis being like us, because we don’t like the idea of them being like us.” With JoJo Rabbit currently causing polarising reactions, it seems that any film that includes Nazis is going to be hugely controversial at the moment. I’m not going to come down on either side here, but will say that Stenberg and MacKay are really good in this film.
16) Ophelia (Claire McCarthy, 2018)
A take on Hamlet that focuses on the character of Ophelia (played by Daisy Ridley). Clive Owen plays MacKay’s Uncle Claudius this time and Naomi Watts plays Gertrude, both giving pretty unhinged performances. Ridley is unfortunately only good as Rey and the writing is um, not great Bob. MacKay is a bright spot in what is generally a mess of a movie.
17) Been So Long (Tinge Krishnan, 2018)
The third musical on MacKay’s IMDb is a really interesting twist on the genre. It’s a rom-com starring Michaela Coel as Simone and Arinze Kene as Raymond. Simone is a single mother who is reluctant to let her guard down and allow a man into her life. Raymond has recently been released from prison and Simone is unsure whether to trust him. The wonderful Joe Dempsie plays the father of Simone’s child. MacKay plays the complicated character of Gil, an apparently homeless and possibly drug-addicted and/or mentally ill man who becomes dangerously obsessed with Raymond and a perceived wrong he has done him. Combining social-realism with romantic-comedy AND a musical is always going to be a tricky feat to pull off, but I admire its riskiness. It doesn’t all work, of course, but I love films that boldly play with genre. This film is on Netflix, of all places and Coel should be a much bigger star after Chewing Gum. This is definitely worth checking out.
18) A Guide to Second Date Sex (Rachel Hirons, 2019)
A film that tries to show a male and female perspective on the world of dating, with an uneven script, but does have some laugh-out-loud highlights (mostly involving Alexandra Roach’s skinny jeans). MacKay is reunited with his Private Peaceful co-star Roach in this film based on an Edinburgh Festival play, which was inspired by real answers from interviews. MacKay plays Ryan, a man still hung up on his ex and trying to negotiate living with housemates Dan (it’s good to see Michael Socha again) and Adam? Andy? (no one is really sure). The running-joke involving the third housemate lingering in the background and being so bland and boring that no one can remember his face or name is a good one. Alexandra Roach is a great actress (she was in my favourite TV show of the last decade – Utopia) and she is very, very funny. MacKay doesn’t shy away from unflattering sex scenes and nudity in his roles (same with the Likely Stories short) and it’s good to see him in a lighter, more comedic and contemporary role.
19) 1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019)
I’m going to have to restrain myself from writing a 2,000 word essay on this film alone here. This is the film that prompted this deep-dive because of MacKay’s incredible central performance as Lance Corporal Schofield. Much has been made of the “one shot” aspect of this film, but there is so much more to it. Deakins’ cinematography is both stunning and purposeful (but that’s for another article). The film is absolutely anchored by MacKay’s performance, however and in combination with Thomas Newman’s score – how anyone can say this film “lacks emotion” is beyond me. This is my favourite of the Best Picture nominees, but it’s already experiencing a backlash (as most popular things do), so I hope Parasite wins. My main annoyance comes from MacKay not being nominated for Best Actor, as the Academy rarely accepts that men under 30 (or even 40) can act. Of course, we still have lots of performances to look forward to from MacKay, so hopefully he’ll be there one day.
20) True History of the Kelly Gang (Justin Kurzel, 2019)
Another possibly controversial role for MacKay here, as the story of Ned Kelly has mythological status in Australia and there is dispute over his position as a folk-hero legend or violent thug. Multiple films and TV shows have tried to take on Ned Kelly and none have really succeeded. Writer Shaun Grant and director Justin Kurzel are asking for trouble with the title of this film, which is preceded by “this is not a true story.” I’m not Australian and don’t have the space to dissect the intricacies of the accuracy of the story here. Taken purely as a spectacle, this film is very much my jam. The cinematography and scenery (in the surprisingly snowy mountains of Tasmania) is stunning, as it was in Kurzel’s Macbeth. The costume design is incredible and there are some wonderful performances from Essie Davis (as Ned’s Mum), Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult, Thomasin McKenzie and even from Charlie Hunnam (doing his own accent – yeay). This definitely will not be for everybody, but I loved it.
So, there you have it. A tour through twenty of George MacKay’s roles. As you can see, he has not just appeared from thin air to star in a Oscar-nominated film, he’s been putting in the work for over 15 years. I have done these deep-dives many many times and can end up watching a lot of dross as I plumb the depths of an actor’s IMDb credits. However, the quality of MacKay’s is generally high and MacKay himself always elevates the films he is in. It’s definitely worth taking a chance on some of these lesser-known titles. Let me know about some of your favourite George MacKay roles!