It’s strange to think that an actor as renowned as Sir Patrick Stewart has never found a big screen role to match his success in theater and television. Sure he has Professor X but that role is more about trading on his presence than any great acting demands and the Star Trek movies allowed only the faintest hint of the complexity he brought to Picard on the small screen. Compare that to Stewart’s fellow acting icon and BFF Sir Ian McKellen who has also done his share of blockbusters but has delivered memorable performances in movies ranging from Gods and Monsters to Apt Pupil to his own brilliant adaptation of Richard III.
Now with Stephen Belber’s Match, adapted from Belber’s own acclaimed stage play, Stewart has finally found a movie role that takes full advantage of his abilities: Tobi, a revered Juliard dance instructor confronted with long buried transgressions from his past. It is a showcase part and Sir Patrick responds by delivering far and away his best, most layered film work to date.
Although its tiny cast and limited locations make Match’s theatrical roots transparent, the film is not hampered by its smallness of scope. The intimate story requires no great “opening up”, as they say, for the big screen. Belber's direction doesn’t suggest a brilliant new directorial voice, but it is straightforward and unfussy and serves the performances without lapsing into the overbearing "this is a movie!" camera angles of Doubt or the “just plant the camera in the fifth row” flatness of The Producers.
Match is a three-hander between Stewart’s Tobias and a married couple named Lisa and Mike, played by Carla Gugino and Matthew Lillard, who show up to interview Tobias about his life in dance for a dissertation she claims to be writing. Tobias wild youth is long behind him and lives a life of contented solitude teaching and knitting. He is both flustered by the disruption to his routine and grateful for the attention to once again be center stage. He makes a performance out of his recollections, preening and slipping in witty barbs at every opportunity. Stewart is so appealing in this opening section that audiences probably wouldn’t object if the film continued on in this fashion as a My Dinner With Andre style conversation piece, but of course there is more to it than that.
We immediately spot that something is off with this couple, especially Lillard’s Mike, who claims to be there as tech support but seems way too preoccupied with Tobi’s past despite admitting that he has no interest in the arts. I expect the big secret will be eagerly revealed by many critics, if not the film’s own ad campaign, but I will not reveal it here except to say that it is about the big secret you are expecting. The predictably doesn’t matter much because it is so well executed by the actors that the three-fold character study becomes more engrossing than guessing in which direction the plot may twist. Match is wise enough to know what matters is not whether or not the accusations are true so much as what the characters believed to be true when they made crucial decisions.
Gugino and Lillard supply able support - particularly Lillard who is well served by the added gravitas granted by crossing into middle age – but this is Stewart’s show all the way. It makes sense that it would take a theatrical adaptation for the great stage actor to finally have an opportunity to show the full range of his gifts on the big screen. Match's biggest flaw is its less than satisfying final movement, which ties up the story far too neatly considering the lines that are crossed, but is still a solid film, sincere and straightforward and ultimately moving. Stewart, however, is in a class above. His work suggests his status as an under-utilized treasure and should earn the film a wider audience than its otherwise modest successes might have landed it.
Verdict: 7 out of 10