Anthony Hopkins: 10 essential films

On his 80th birthday, we celebrate a selection of the finest performances by the great Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins, from The Silence of the Lambs to The Remains of the Day.

Matthew Thrift
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The Remains of the Day (1993)

The Remains of the Day (1993)

With more than 130 screen credits to his name, it’s a tough task choosing just 10 essential performances from the career of Sir Anthony Hopkins. Coming up through the ranks of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre, he couldn’t have asked for a more star-studded emergence on the big screen, playing the future Richard II opposite Peter O’Toole and an Oscar-winning Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter (1968). Moving increasingly from the stage to concentrate on cinema and television, his varied filmography includes projects as disparate as five for Richard Attenborough and Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) – his own favourite being his charming second film with director Roger Donaldson, The World’s Fastest Indian (2005).

The Elephant Man (1980)

Director David Lynch

The Elephant Man (1980)

A single tear holds devastating potency in David Lynch’s masterpiece, The Elephant Man. If there’s a single standout moment in Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Frederick Treves, chief surgeon at the Royal London Hospital, it’s his first encounter with – and the audience’s first glimpse of – John Hurt’s John Merrick early in the film. Mouth agape in stunned silence as the carnival barker pantomimes his introduction, Treves steps into the light of a Victorian backstreet for Merrick’s reveal, as Freddie Francis’s camera pushes into a close-up of tremendous power.

The Bunker (1981)

Director George Schaefer

The Bunker (1981)

Some 33 years before the Oscar-nominated Downfall (2004), this television movie sought to tell the ‘psychological truth’ of the 105 days in the Berlin bunker at the end of the Second World War. Hopkins plays Hitler, barking fast and führious through a Welsh brogue. It doesn’t take long to get over the film’s miscellany of English-speaking accents, not least Hopkins’, whose steady mental decline from glassy-eyed resolve to full-blown meltdown via a series of seismic eruptions proves a tour de force of ill-suppressed emotional containment.

The Bounty (1984)

Director Roger Donaldson

The Bounty (1984)

Following Charles Laughton in 1935 and Trevor Howard in 1962, Hopkins took on the role of Captain William Bligh for Roger Donaldson’s take on the story of the mutiny on the Bounty. With Mel Gibson as thorn in his side, Fletcher Christian and the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson in early supporting turns, it’s a spirited high-seas romp, if also the least of the three big-screen versions to date. An inflexibly resolute Hopkins is the best thing in it, the film unsurprisingly at its strongest when he and Gibson are at each other’s throats.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Director Jonathan Demme

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The film that won him his best actor Oscar, and one of just three movies to win in all five major categories, The Silence of the Lambs presented Hopkins with the role with which he remains indelibly synonymous: chianti-loving serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter. It’s an iconic creation, with the actor finding delectable depths in every syllable. Earning a cool $15m in the process, he’d reprise the role to ever hammier effect in sequels for Ridley Scott (Hannibal, 2001) and Brett Ratner (Red Dragon, 2002).

Howards End (1992)

Director James Ivory

Howards End (1992)

Given that hers is the character who ties together the class-divided strata of Howards End, it perhaps came as little surprise that Emma Thompson would draw the lion’s share of plaudits – and a best actress Oscar to boot – for her performance. As the self-preservationist patriarch, Henry Wilcox, Hopkins is a model of subtlety and guarded, acquisitive cunning. The confrontation scene between the two, over a decade old affair, sees Hopkins’ Wilcox seem to channel a dozen emotions simultaneously. Confessional, while giving nothing away; ashamed, yet aware enough of the power dynamic to prove a wily emotional manipulator.

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Director James Ivory

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Just a year after Howards End, Hopkins reunited with co-star Emma Thompson for another Merchant Ivory production, this time an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 Booker Prize winner, The Remains of the Day. So great when having to play emotionally repressed, Hopkins’ skills arguably peaked with his portrayal of the butler, Mr Stevens. So committed to his duties under James Fox’s misguided Nazi sympathiser that he lets a chance at love pass him by, Stevens’ tragedy plays out through a series of the smallest gestures. It’s a heartbreaking study in shuttered feelings and emotional stubbornness, which earned the actor his second Oscar nomination.

Shadowlands (1993)

Director Richard Attenborough

Shadowlands (1993)

Another brilliantly buttoned-up turn from Hopkins, this time as Narnia author and Oxford don C.S. Lewis. In Richard Attenborough’s wrecking ball of a weepie, it’s the early 1950s and Lewis begins a tentative relationship with a fan and his polar opposite: the talkative, outgoing – and American – Debra Winger. Barely overcoming his quiet, studious conservatism to declare his love, Lewis shares a brief period of happiness with his new bride before a devastating terminal diagnosis. Hopkins’ battles with Winger, as she rails against his emotional repression, are among both actors’ best work, but it’s his scenes with her young son, following her death, that guarantee to shatter even the hardest of hearts.

Nixon (1995)

Director Oliver Stone

Nixon (1995)

Hopkins garnered his third Oscar nomination playing the title role in this second of three Oliver Stone films – between JFK (1991) and W. (2008) – centred on American presidents. A fourth nod would follow for his portrayal of another president, John Quincy Adams, in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), but it’s Nixon that stands among his greatest performances. With Stone’s typically abrasive formal flair, Nixon chronicles the disgraced commander-in-chief’s early life and political career across more than three hours (longer in the director’s cut). Hopkins delivers a psychological portrait of extraordinary complexity that, while certainly never excusing, goes some way to humanise the man beyond his failings in the Watergate fallout.

The Edge (1997)

Director Lee Tamahori

The Edge (1997)

When their plane crashes in the wilderness, the simmering rivalry between a billionaire bookworm (Hopkins) and a smooth-talking photographer (Alec Baldwin) boils over, leading to a series of showdowns against each other and the man-eating bear hot on their tail. Man vs man, man vs nature, man vs cheating wife: business as usual for screenwriter David Mamet. No Deliverance (1972), perhaps, but director Lee Tamahori ensures it moves at a decent enough clip. It’s most cherishable for allowing Hopkins such transformative relish when zero-hour with the grizzly approaches, affording him the career-rarity of a killer kiss-off quip: “Because today… I’m gonna kill that motherfucker!”

Titus (1999)

Director Julie Taymor

Titus (1999)

While stage appearances from Hopkins are a rarity these days, he’s certainly no stranger to Shakespeare. With Richard Eyre’s TV adaptation of King Lear – one that sees Hopkins once again reunited with Emma Thompson – currently in production, there’ll soon be another to file alongside his 1981 Othello for Jonathan Miller (opposite Bob Hoskins’ Iago) and an early Claudius for Tony Richardson. The most cinematic of his bard-tending gigs came in 1999 courtesy of Broadway’s Julie Taymor. It may not all quite hang together, but you can’t help but admire the grandiosity of ambition on display, with Hopkins delivering a barking performance that’s suitably scaled to Taymor’s lurid operatics.

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