Cillian Murphy is one of those actors who elevates every scene he appears in. His career covers the gamut of genres, and he’s the type of old fashioned, utility player actor who doesn’t always get his due. With his leading role on the smash hit series Peaky Blinders as gangster Thomas “Tommy” Shelby, audiences around the world are seeing how powerful Murphy’s work can be. His look and talent makes him leading man material, but Murphy has frequently chosen to play villains or heroes with a twist, resisting typecasting. As part of our Beyond series, we’re taking a deep dive into the Irish actor’s body of work to pull out some gems that any fan of Peaky Blinders should watch next. Disclaimer: there are mild spoilers ahead for some of Murphy’s filmography.
The Way We Live Now (2001)
In the 2001 miniseries The Way We Live Now on BBC One, Murphy starred as Paul Montague, a man caught in a love triangle and several scandalous affairs in 1870s England. The series as a whole boasted an all-star cast, but Murphy shined as Paul, the character with the moral high ground by the end of the series. 2001 was a big year for Murphy that really showed off his range as an actor. In this project he played a romantic lead, but in Disco Pigs (2001) he played a young man struggling with mental illness and a codependent bond with his best friend. The one-two punch of both films featuring such drastically different performances by Murphy marked him as one to watch. Regrettable sideburns aside, The Way We Live Now is one of Murphy’s few romantic leading roles and one of his best performances.
28 Days Later (2002)
28 Days Later marks a turning point not just in Murphy’s career, but also in zombie movies. Written by legendary sci-fi writer Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle, the film follows a group of survivors (Murphy, Naomie Harris, Megan Burns, and Brendan Gleeson) after a widespread virus takes hold of the population, turning them into fast-moving and deadly zombies. Murphy is convincing as a man whose world has been turned upside down, especially when he is forced to take drastic measures to survive. The iconic scene where he wanders in an empty London after being released from the hospital showcases his talent well and is an all around incredible moment. The film met with wide acclaim and helped creatively revive the zombie genre — though watching it in the midst of a global pandemic might be closer to home than the filmmakers intended.
Batman Begins (2005)
This film marks the first of several collaborations between Murphy and director Christopher Nolan. In this film, which is the first in the widely acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, Murphy plays villain Dr. Jonathan Crane, also known as Scarecrow. Scarecrow is the only villain in the trilogy to appear in all three films, and from his first scene it’s apparent why. His sinister “do you want to see my mask?” is spine chilling, as is his character’s focus on fear as a weapon. Murphy has a unique power that keeps you watching, with Nolan telling The Guardian that “he has the most extraordinary eyes, and I kept trying to invent excuses for him to take his glasses off in close-ups.” While Murphy’s scenes in the sequels weren’t as plentiful, they were impactful. In The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, Scarecrow is used to tie all three films together, and the final film in particular gives Murphy a showcase as he presides over the “court.” There’s an interesting “what could have been” element to Murphy’s casting as he auditioned for the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman as well, but his skill at playing a villain is too good to waste.
It seems that once a director works with Murphy, they just want to keep casting him. Sunshine reunites Murphy with Danny Boyle in a sci-fi film with a fantastic ensemble cast including Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, and more. It follows Murphy as Capa, the leader of a mission to the Sun meant to return it to its normal capacity and save the solar system. But the mission quickly becomes about survival and psychological breakdowns as each character is tested. Sunshine is both action packed and moving with a gorgeous score. The film was received well critically, but less so at the box office, which is unfortunate due to the originality of the film and the strength of its performances.
Reuniting again with Christopher Nolan, Murphy plays Robert Fischer, whose mind is infiltrated by the team led by Leonardo DiCaprio. Robert is a spoiled heir to a business empire who struggles with living up to his father’s high expectations, and in a film mostly known for its mind-bending twists and stunning visual imagery, Robert’s journey provides one of the grounding elements. A scene in which Robert sees his father in his subconscious doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but Murphy conveys his character’s complex emotions through his eyes.
Again returning to work with Nolan, Murphy’s performance in this film is one of his best. As an unnamed character credited only as “Shivering Soldier,” Murphy represents the horror of war as a man struggling with severe PTSD who is rescued from the water by civilian Dawson and his son Peter, along with Peter’s friend George. His desperation to not go back to the fighting comes up against the insistence that he do so from the other characters, who do not have a true idea of the invisible battle the soldier is fighting or the scale of the horror at Dunkirk. He brings the war home to the boys, who at first deride him for his perceived cowardice but soon gain a firsthand understanding of what the soldier was running from. Murphy’s skill at portraying this complex and tragic character makes Dunkirk one of his most memorable performances.
The Wind That Shakes The Barley(2006)
Breakfast on Pluto (2005). A note about this film – while it features a darkly funny performance by Murphy that earned him a Golden Globe nomination, Murphy is a cisgender man playing a transgender woman. This fits the all too common practice of cisgender actors receiving critical acclaim for playing transgender roles while transgender actors are shut out of many opportunities entirely. While this type of casting was commonplace in 2005 (and unfortunately still is today), representation is important and we wanted to note the missed opportunity here to let transgender individuals tell their own stories – as they must be allowed to do today.
Disco Pigs (2001)
To see a full list of Murphy’s work, head over to IMDb. Murphy will next be seen in A Quiet Place Part 2 as well as the upcoming sixth season of Peaky Blinders, which was unfortunately delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.