performance review

Paul Mescal Is Our Disappointment Heartthrob

Photo: A24

Not everything Paul Mescal has been in over the course of his short career has been a romance, but they’re all love stories of one sort or another — when not between lovers, then between a mother and her wayward son or a daughter and her elusive father. It’s seemingly impossible not to long for the 27-year-old Irish actor, though as a very contemporary object of desire — which is to say that the women he shares the screen with yearn for his character to do better as much as they yearn for him. Mescal is beautiful, obviously, with startling blue eyes, a profile that wouldn’t look out of place on a Roman statue, and the shoulders of a casual athlete. But beauty is the baseline in the film and television industries, and it alone isn’t enough to leave the kind of lasting impression that Mescal has managed to in his three-ish years in the public eye. What sets him apart aren’t his looks so much as the heady combination of those looks with a hint of sensitivity that the men he plays can’t be counted on to actually behave. He has a gift for playing one of the guys while daring you to believe he’s more than that. Other heartthrobs may exude swagger or sex, but Mescal emanates something even more devastating: the irresistible promise of eventual disappointment.

You can blame Normal People for laying the foundation for this brand. The Sally Rooney adaptation was Mescal’s acting debut, not counting a comedy series that didn’t get past the pilot stage, and as it vaulted him to internet-boyfriend status, it also entwined his image with that of a character who commits an inexplicable act of social sadism against the young woman he cares for deeply. He plays Connell, who when the show begins is a teenager who’s been blessed with the kind of frictionless existence of someone who hasn’t yet had to think deeply about the lives of others. He’s popular at school and with girls and is good at sports, and while he hasn’t grown up with money, he has a close relationship with his mother, Lorraine. He’s easily described as a nice kid, an assessment that has more to do with an absence of clearly bad behavior than any active qualities on his part. But, of course, there’s more to Connell than that. He is, not quite secretly, an avid reader, though the thought of pursuing literature in university doesn’t cross his mind until it’s suggested to him by Marianne, the outcast he starts sleeping with on the sly.

It’s those glimpses of unexplored depths, as well as his willingness to be vulnerable, that make Connell so appealing and that make his treatment of Marianne such a brutal mindfuck. In private, he’s outright tender, opening up, telling her he loves her and seeming to mean it, while in public he blanks her and remains silent while his friends hurl insults her way, insisting afterward that they were just teasing. While both main characters change and mature over the course of Normal People’s 12-episode run, it’s that early look at Connell out on the football pitch — as Marianne put it, so beautiful that she wanted to see him having sex — that lingers like an afterimage. It’s a vision of someone who could easily get away with cruelty and who you can only hope won’t try to. When Lorraine figures out how her son has been treating Marianne and berates him during a car ride, it’s with the defeated fury of someone realizing there is only so much she can do to shape the man her son is turning out to be and the rest will be left to him.

There’s a similar driving scene in Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s God’s Creatures, one of the two movies Mescal was in last year. In that one, Emily Watson is the mother, Aileen, and Mescal’s character, Brian, is like a Connell who curdled into something dark. He’s a prodigal son who’s come back to the small Irish fishing village in which he grew up after years abroad, and he settles right back into the rhythms of a community held together by women who are expected to accommodate the violence of their men and to in turn mourn them when they’re taken by their dangerous jobs. We see Brian through Aileen’s eyes, and he seems to light up the room and to bring warmth back into her existence, even if not everyone is as happy about his return. When he’s accused of rape by a woman he used to date, Aileen reflexively lies to cover for him, without even considering the possibility that he might have done it, though as time goes on she begins to doubt. Alone in the car with him, she tentatively broaches the topic, and he goes on the offensive, hissing, “I’m better off going back to fucking Australia.” He sees her love for him, or for the person she wants him to be, as leverage, betting that the threat of him leaving again will be enough to keep her in willful denial.

Brian is eventually revealed to be something worse than a garden-variety scumbag, a disappointing development in a film that felt more urgent as a testament to the way garden-variety scumbags get protected by communities every day. Both Connell and Brian are hometown hero types, cherished sons that small communities will close ranks around, especially when it comes to behavior involving women. It’s a status quo that Mescal plays a part in enforcing even in his smaller part in 2020 miniseries The Deceived, a modernized riff on Rebecca co-created by Derry Girls’ Lisa McGee and set in a fictional community in rural Donegal. Mescal’s a contractor and volunteer fireman named Sean McKeogh who’s introduced as a salt-of-the-earth alternative to the manipulative professor that naive undergrad heroine Ophelia has been having an affair with. “I hope you know that you can trust me,” Sean, dirt-smudged and solicitous, tells the isolated young woman at one point. And yet when she does, going to him about a relationship that seems increasingly dangerous, he doesn’t believe what she’s saying about someone he’s known for most of his life. Instead of helping her get away, he delivers her back to the man she’s afraid of, insisting she’s unstable and needs treatment.

Photo: Enda Bowe/A24

There’s a solidity about Mescal that lends itself to playing small-town and working-class characters. Even his handsomeness is less typical of the movie stars whose ranks he’s well on the way to joining and more like that of the most crushed-on guy at your local high school. But despite the fixation on the chain he wore in Normal People, what’s key to his allure is not that he’s positioned as a bit rough, but the way his characters tend to be seekers who are looking for something beyond the usual boundaries of the lives they’ve been born into. This translates to travel — Brian in God’s Country has his antipodal interlude, Connell in Normal People goes backpacking through Europe while in college (to sneers from Marianne’s monied boyfriend), and Will, the business student Mescal plays in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, spends his summers in Greece, albeit in the service of demanding vacationers. But it also extends to unexpected reading habits, which serves as a way of confounding class biases. Connell surprises Marianne by plucking Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook from her shelf and revealing he’s read it, while Calum, in Charlotte Wells’ terrific Aftersun, is a self-taught scholar of Eastern practices, carrying around reading material on meditation and tai chi.

Calum’s the part that’s gotten Mescal his first Academy Award nomination, and it’s also the best encapsulation to date of the particular hope and heartbreak he’s been so deft at embodying. While not a romance at all, the film thrums with how much Sophie longs for the young father that, it’s implied, hasn’t been present in her life for decades. The majority of the movie consists of Sophie’s recollections and home videos of a holiday the two of them took to a discount Turkish resort when she was 11, a trip we come to realize that she’s revisiting because she’s reached the age that Calum was back then, and is attempting to bridge the years in order to see her dad with the eyes of a fellow adult. The nature of this premise means Calum is more elusive than the other characters Mescal has played, intensely present while also keeping back huge parts of himself, including bouts of despair, from his daughter’s view.

Mescal’s beauty, here, feels like a burden on his character as he awkwardly straddles the responsibilities of fatherhood and a boozy scene of carefree vacationers he could easily blend into. He no longer takes pleasure in his fleeting youth but still feels panic over losing it, confessing only half-jokingly to a scuba instructor, “I didn’t think I’d see 30.” Of all the women who look at Mescal on screen with bittersweet yearning, Sophie is the one whose gaze feels the most poignant, experienced through the double vision of her childhood perspective and the memories of the woman she becomes. Calum is trying so hard not to fail her, and yet he feels that he can’t help himself because of his financial situation and his own crushing melancholy, not that it matters so much to her, who simply loves him. Frozen forever at this age in her memory, he makes earnest, fumbling efforts to be a good dad, a different dad, one she can open up to and talk honestly with about anything, while at the same time awareness of his impending absence looms over everything — he’s already gone.

What to do with a heartthrob whose appeal comes in part with the expectation that he’ll let you down? Mescal is compelling because he encompasses so many of our conflicted desires for a new model of masculinity that somehow includes all the archetypes of the old model, with a softer center. Streaming rom-coms have tackled this problem by serving up classic model jocks and bad boys who just happen to be nice, but Mescal’s characters exist on a more grounded plane of existence, where idealization collides with reality. They are tantalizingly half-formed, semi-enlightened, representing the potential for a hypothetical ideal that we haven’t quite figured out, and if they tilt toward disappointment, maybe that’s just because to expect otherwise would be too romantic. As Mescal navigates the Oscar race, a publicly scrutinized relationship and apparent subsequent breakup, and a starring role in Ridley Scott’s upcoming Gladiator sequel, the mystique that comes from having such a concentrated filmography is starting to dissipate. This period in his career may never be summed up better than by Marianne’s teasing comment midway through the miniseries that launched Mescal toward fame. “His mother raised him well,” she says as he carries her groceries bags home, though the reason we can’t stop watching is because we want to see what he does next.

Paul Mescal Is Our Disappointment Heartthrob