My earliest memory of Sally Hawkins involves Colm Meaney, Jamie Foreman, Rab Affleck, and a dispute over stolen ecstasy pills that ends with her character taking a bullet to the face. The film is Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake, and her character is Slasher, a drug dealer with bad impulse control and worse taste in men. (Her beau, the Duke, is a swaggering braggart gangster wannabe.) During negotiations with rival gangsters, played by Meaney and Affleck, Slasher has the bright idea to threaten them with the law, so Affleck casually guns them down. It’s a mercy killing. Slasher and the Duke, two idiot peas in a stupid pod, were never long for the world.
Slasher isn’t the kind of role award-winning careers are made of, though, so it’s a genuine pleasure to see Hawkins, one of our most underappreciated screen actresses, continue to thrive nearly a decade and a half later. It’s true that Hawkins makes quite the unhinged first impression in Vaughn’s film. She’s a Looney Tunes character with a gun and a big mouth, constantly out of her depth without ever realizing it. But this film is the outlier in a filmography filled with bubbly, upbeat and tenderhearted women in unfortunate circumstances. When Hawkins isn’t playing sources of empathy in her movies, she’s playing targets for it. For every Poppy Cross (Happy-Go-Lucky), there’s a Ginger (Blue Jasmine), which just so happen to be the two roles that boosted her profile the most over the last decade (prior to The Shape of Water, of course).
Consider Samantha, Hawkins’ character in All or Nothing, one of two films she worked on with Mike Leigh back in 2004. Samantha is unemployed, vulgar, and at first characterized as unfeeling. She seduces her neighbor’s boyfriend, heaps scorn on her parents, and teases Craig (Ben Crompton), the weirdo loner who lusts after her. You’re hard-pressed to find anything redeeming about her, until Craig expresses his feelings for her via self-mutilation. The cocktail of disgust and kindness Samantha serves Craig after he carves her initials over his chest is trademark Hawkins. She’s appalled, even horrified, but she’s moved, too, which is more than most people might show the guy so fixated on them that he willingly scars himself just to get their attention.
Cut to 2017 and The Shape of Water, which hinges on a pared down version of that dynamic: Hawkin’s Elisa Esposito is entranced by the Asset, the fish-man who captures her affection, but her wonder is coupled with fright to begin with. All or Nothing’s Craig is a figurative monster, capable of utterly gruesome acts. The Asset is a literal one, also capable of gruesome acts, but like Craig he’s deserving of basic empathy, and few actresses have proven themselves more capable of providing that kind of understanding to outsiders than Hawkins. It’s common in Hawkins’ work that she plays cheerful women possessed of a positive outlook on life, and just as common that the company her characters keep tend to look down on her. But the disparagement comes at their own expense. What Samantha and Elisa lack among social norms they make up for with their humanity, revealing the callousness of everyone in their orbit.
After getting her start working with Mike Leigh in All or Nothing and Vera Drake, it feels appropriate that their third collaboration,Happy-Go-Lucky, should be the first movie for which Hawkins received awards season recognition. Poppy is relentlessly effervescent to the point that nearly everyone around her regards her as a complete ninny. Her driving instructor, Scott, gives her a hard time at every available opportunity, taking her spritely personality and her fashion preferences as proof of her lackadaisicalness (though as Scott happens to be a racist misogynist scumbag, we know exactly how seriously to take his criticisms). Her sister, Helen, lectures her on the relative merits of her freewheeling lifestyle, as if being a teacher necessarily means one must live like a monk.
A similar misapprehension extends to her character, Ginger, the sister of Cate Blanchett’s condescending elitist snob on the decline in Blue Jasmine. In the film, Blanchett’s Jasmine must suffer the ignominy of living with Ginger and her boyfriend, Chili. (It’s a steep decline for Jasmine, who had it all up until the FBI arrests her husband, Hal, for swindling his clients, including Ginger and her ex-husband, Augie, out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.) To say Jasmine disapproves of Chili would be a gross understatement, though her opinion of her sibling isn’t especially high, either. You get the sense that Jasmine thinks of Ginger as a small child, incapable of making smart life decisions, which is bitterly hilarious given Jasmine’s own childlike habits—she lies out of hand and acts on entitlement. Ultimately Ginger has more of a backbone. (If nothing else, she ends the movie with a roof over her head and Jasmine doesn’t.)
Pluck may be Hawkins’ bread and butter, but underestimation of her character comes a close second. Hugh Bonneville routinely throws her cockeyed glances in both of the Paddington movies, where he plays her buttoned-down husband, a man simultaneously captivated and exasperated by his wife’s unfailing benevolence; meanwhile, in The Shape of Water, she is passed over as the culprit behind the Asset’s extraction from the shady government lab where she works because who in their right mind would suspect a mute female janitor of masterminding such an intricate heist? Even when Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Russian double-agent sympathetic to Elisa’s cause, spills the beans on her guilt, cackling as he bleeds to death in the rain, Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) hardly seems to believe what he’s hearing. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Strickland makes advances toward Elisa, just as Scott does Poppy, as Craig does Samantha, as Louis C.K.’s character in Blue Jasmine does Ginger. Hawkins’ characters are often subject to unwanted or ill-advised propositions.)
This combination of traits makes Hawkins unique among her competition at the 2018 Academy Awards, and if you’re the type to bet on AMPAS winners it makes her an easy pick for Best Actress. She has moxy and she’s frequently overlooked, but she also comes out ahead in the end. If that isn’t a good metaphorical reason to expect her to score an Oscar this year, I don’t know what is.
I may have had no idea who I was watching on my region-free DVD player back in my dorm room days, but it’s been a delight to watch this particular performer’s career take shape.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist,WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.