Sunday, July 25, 2021

Beyond Yelena Belova: Florence Pugh

Marvel’s latest film Black Widow hit theaters this weekend, and there’s been a lot of praise directed at Florence Pugh for her portrayal of Yelena Belova. Our reviewer Kaity had this to say: “While there is no mistake that this is Natasha’s story, Yelena is the perfect opposite to Natasha. It’s impossible not to fall into their easy repartee, and even more so to deny the charm of Pugh’s Yelena, who we can only hope is here to stay.”

The scene-stealing character is certainly poised to make a name for herself within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Pugh has been taking Hollywood by storm for several years now. She’s a versatile and in-demand actress who can play both comedic and dramatic roles with ease. Pugh has a way of humanizing every character she plays no matter how despicable their actions. She draws the viewer into the story and commands attention on-screen. In celebration of her MCU debut, we’re looking back at some of her best roles to date as part of our Beyond Series.

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Pugh’s breakout role came at just 20 in Lady Macbeth, a dark historical drama based on the novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov. She plays newly married Katherine, who lives alone with her much older (and very creepy) husband. When her small world expands with the arrival of Sebastian, a handsome farmhand, she begins a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Her life soon spins out of control as she explores her sexuality — and capacity for violence. This film is not for the faint of heart, containing many sexually explicit scenes. But Pugh’s performance is a stunner, constantly keeping the audience guessing as to Katherine’s motivations. Pugh earned a British Independent Film Award for Best Actress, and Lady Macbeth propelled her to wider recognition in the United States.

Fighting With My Family (2019)

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Wrestling fans know the story of Paige, a woman raised in a family of professional wrestlers in Norwich, England before rising to become a WWE Superstar. But Fighting With My Family tells this story in a hilarious and heartfelt film anchored by Pugh’s performance as Paige. We see her go from scrappy teen wrestler kicking ass and taking names with her rowdy family to performing on the biggest stage of them all. Paige is instantly lovable through Pugh’s performance, and you root for her to make her dream come true. It also showcased Pugh’s comedic side for the first time, with her first few films tackling darker topics. Fighting With My Family premiered with Little Women and Midsommar in 2019 (more on both of those films below). These three tonally different performances showed off her range as an actor for critics and audiences.

King Lear (2018)

The cast of this Shakespearian miniseries is full of brilliant actors: Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Emily Watson, Jim Broadbent, and Christopher Eccleston, just to name a few. But Pugh stands out as Cordelia, the youngest daughter of the titular king who finds herself cast off when she refuses to participate in her father’s power games. While her two older sisters flatter their father shamelessly to gain power, Cordelia’s simple declaration of love makes her an outsider. Shakespeare is difficult for any actor to tackle, particularly with a role as iconic as Cordelia opposite the legendary Hopkins. But Pugh makes it her own and steals the scenes she appears in, a running theme throughout her career.

The Little Drummer Girl (2018)

This miniseries based on the classic spy novel by John Le Carré is Pugh at her best. She stars as actress Charlie Ross, whose dangerous role working with Mossad draws her into the world of espionage. Park Chan-Wook directs the series to perfection and features Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Shannon alongside Pugh. Pugh gives Charlie an air of sophistication while allowing her naivete to show through her carefully crafted persona. The Little Drummer Girl is fast paced, requiring a strong lead to hold the many pieces of its narrative together. Pugh does a spectacular job drawing viewers into the story.

Little Women (2019)

This performance earned Pugh her first well deserved Academy Award nomination. Amy March is one of the most controversial characters in literature, with legions of fans and equally numerous detractors. Most adaptations of Little Women present Amy as a spoiled child and coolly mercenary adult while having two different actresses play the role. But this Little Women chose to flip the script by fleshing out Amy’s story.

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The film’s non-linear structure builds the audience’s empathy for Amy, but Pugh’s portrayal makes Amy March into a hero. She deftly handles playing a funny 12 year old Amy obsessed with her looks and dreaming of a fairytale life. Her transition to an adult Amy determined to make the most of her limited choices is also believable. Pugh delivers the most powerful monologue in the film explicitly stating Amy’s motive for marrying a rich man, a speech Pugh performed the same day it was written. Pugh’s performance forces audiences to draw a parallel between Amy and Jo that previous adaptations chose not to make. This strengthens the film overall and sets it apart from prior adaptations.

Midsommar (2019)

Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary, Midsommar is one of those horror movies that requires the viewer to pay attention, not just coasting on terrifying imagery (though, be warned: there’s plenty of terror to be found here). It’s far from a straightforward slasher film, instead choosing to tell a complex story about grief and trauma. The center of that story is Pugh as Dani, a woman pushed to the brink by a horrific family tragedy. Dani accompanies her boyfriend Christian to Sweden on a trip for his friend’s thesis to save their deteriorating relationship. But they soon find themselves embroiled in a deadly cult ritual. Pugh’s performance builds to an anguished crescendo in the final minutes in what has become an iconic scene. Again, Pugh’s grounded acting holds the film together, getting audiences to care about Dani from the beginning.

Honorable Mentions:

The Falling (2014): Pugh’s first film, in which she stars opposite Maisie Williams in a psychological thriller about female friendship and mass hysteria.

Malevolent (2018): Pugh is one half of a scam-artist sibling duo who pretend to exorcise spirits from people’s homes … at least until the real spirits show up.

In The Time It Takes To Get There (2019): A short film featuring Pugh as an influencer, with original influencer Alicia Silverstone (a.k.a. Cher from Clueless) as her scheming mother.

Black Widow is in theaters and on Disney+ now. Pugh’s upcoming work includes Don’t Worry Darling and her reprisal of Yelena Belova in the Hawkeye series for Disney+.

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Jules
I am a nurse and dedicated nerd from Boston, MA. When I'm not at work, I'm rewatching old favorites like Supernatural or discovering my new obsessions (too many to count!). When not fangirling, I can be found reading, writing, or listening to a true crime podcast. You can find me on Twitter @juleswritesblog for more nerdy nonsense.

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