Top 10 film performances: Michael Sheen

Michael Sheen

Last updated: 05 March 2010

Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon (2008)

It's just possible that Michael Sheen has given marginally finer performances than in Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon but the iconic nature of the 1977 TV confrontation at the kernel of the film, and Nixon's subsequent plunge from grace, give the film a tantalising historical resonance.

The battle of the two protagonists fascinates as Frank Langella, in the performance of his career as the disgraced US president, threatens not merely to efface Sheen but metaphorically obliterate him from the screen. Langella's physical bulk, and powerful presence and his ability to convey an almost feral cunning, means that he often dominates our attention. Langella grasps every chance to reveal different facets of the old political slugger.

Yet Sheen counters the grandstanding with aplomb. Frost is a difficult man to play - the university grad and stage performer who came almost from nowhere to become a highly influential chic TV personality via groundbreaking radical satirical programmes such as That Was the Week That Was (1962/63).

Sheen, with perception, elects to play Frost as plausible, but essentially unreadable - a man whose blank expression, apart from an almost permanent curl of the lip, almost needled the interviewee to reveal more than he intended.

Sheen conveys perfectly the man's seeming ambivalence as a creature of the TV medium who often, off set, suggests here the dilettante intellectual with a perennially detached stance to his subject. Sheen risks conveying the impression that Frost was merely vacuous.

Yet in final scenes - despite rather obvious and pat scripting from Peter Morgan - he helps bring Frost into focus as sharp and self-aware enough to make his unfathomability his strength and lull Nixon into a fatal sense of security.

Sheen has readily revealed his ability as an imitator, and something more in other performances - notably as Tony Blair in The Queen (2006) and, as Kenneth Williams, in his Royal Television Society Best Actor-winning performance in Fantabulosa! in 2005 he caught the comedian's self-loathing and neurosis in spades.

As Frost he had to 'read' a more insular and guarded character who seemed to have scarcely any persona beyond the screen. Against the odds, Sheen leads us to root for Frost's incisive, demanding line of questioning, while providing tantalising hints of a man wretchedly uneasy when required to suggest or feign genuine affability.

Watch Michael Sheen discussing his role in Frost/Nixon.

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