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Film

Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Cillian Murphy

Cillian Murphy is a man of many talents, but you probably know him best as the roguish heart-throb from Peaky Blinders. Yet behind that cap and tie lies a consummate professional who started off on the boards before heading into indie cinema. Growing up in Ireland, Murphy brought an innate Celticism to the roles he played for Danny Boyle and Christopher Nolan. 

From supporting roles in mainstream features, Bale got his big break in 2006, when he starred in a Neil Jordan vehicle, playing a trans woman searching for an identity Ireland robbed from her. And what a performance it was, too, embodying the contradictions, contrasts and complications of the source Patrick McCabe novel. The film performance is arguably his rawest work, exhibiting a commitment that recalled Dustin Hoffman’s boisterous, larger than life performances from the 1970s. 

And there was his portrait of a war-torn hero, drowning in his memories of gunfire and explosives. Imprisoned by his thoughts and night-terrors, Murphy’s soldier invoked Christopher Jones performance of a soldier racked by shell-shock in Ryan’s Daughter. There’s no shortage of projects piling on for the Cork actor, as a Peaky Blinders film is being developed as we speak. What Murphy brings to the roles isn’t just truth or perspective, but reverence to the stories, following the lead of his screenwriters, rather than inflect his own interpretation on their work. 

Check out a list of Cillian Murphy’s definitive performances below.

Cillian Murphy’s six definitive films:

Disco Pigs (Kirsten Sheridan – 2001)

Dublin birthed U2 and Colin Farrell, Belfast bore Van Morrisson and Ciaran Hinds, while Cork is the city that made Rory Gallagher and Cillian Murphy into the artists that they grew up to be. Strangely, Murphy has made very few films in his hometown, but this picture more than fills the gap due to its authenticity and great reverence to the community. 

Murphy plays Darren, or ‘Pig’; an introverted young man drowning within his personal abyss. He has few friends, and shows little interest in making new ones. Murphy had performed the role on stage, which made it easier for him to inhabit the skin one more occasion for the big screen. 

28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)

This film is a monster; literally! Written about the prospect of a zombie apocalypse, the film earned a strange second meaning during the Covid-19 pandemic when it cautioned viewers to a world that disobeyed rules, regulations or lockdown procedures. 

And in the heart of the action stands Murphy, who spends the majority of the film running away from the creatures that would rip him apart, limb from limb. Director Danny Boyle enjoyed working with the Irish actor, and the two reunited for Sunshine. “He was a little shy when we first worked together,” Boyle recalled. “He was probably thinking ‘what the hell am I doing making a zombie movie?’ but now he knows how to step forward and take ownership of the film himself and that’s very impressive.”

Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005)

Batman Begins might be the only superhero film that could be perceived as a British film. It was directed by an Englishman, starred a Welshman behind the cowl, and there were two Irishmen who played the nefarious baddies: Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy. Sounds more like Richard Curtis than Jon Favreau to me! 

Christopher Nolan‘s Gotham is a sinister place, where survival depends on the ferocity, or the sheer willpower, of the person in question. And it’s in this world where Murphy’s Jonathan Crane resides, poisoning his clients with a drug that brings out their worst terrors. Murphy reprised the role in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, although those were much smaller performances. 

Breakfast on Pluto (Neil Jordan, 2005)

Director Neil Jordan contacted Murphy to deliver what is arguably the performance of the Cork actor’s life. He plays Patrick Braden, who escapes Catholic-dominated Ireland in the hope of pursuing gender realignment overseas in London. It’s unlikely that Murphy would get to portray the role if it was made today, but he does play the role with great reverence to members of the trans community. 

It helps that Murphy has an androgynous beauty, which might explain why his sex appeal crosses the board—capturing the essence of the Irish misfit in a series of comical set-pieces. And whether he’s playing a Womble, or being strangled by a member of Roxy Music, Murphy acquits himself nicely to the role. 

The Wind that Shakes The Barley (Ken Loach, 2006)

Murphy followed the performance of his life with the greatest movie in his career (yes, Peaky Blinders is his best work as both an actor and an artist, but that’s television), It took an Englishman, Ken Loach, to exhibit the complexities of the Irish War for Independence, as the conflict seeped past the battlefield into the family homes of the soldiers themselves. 

Murphy goes from loyal British servant to hardened republican, dying for a country that still hasn’t come to pass. Loach decided not to show Murphy the finished script, trusting the actor to find the answers within his interpretation of the character. “I knew that my character in the film was a doctor but I never knew where his politics lay until the film progressed,” he admitted. “That’s why the performances felt so real because events are sort of unfolding right in front of your eyes and you react in an emotional, non-intellectual way and that’s where the truth exists.”

Dunkirk (Christopher Nola, 2017)

Murphy has worked with Nolan on a number of projects: There was his probing scientist in Batman Begins, his disenfranchised operator plunged into the dream-like apocalypse of Inception, and there’s the solider, lost in a sea of nightmares, who steals the hearts of the audience in Dunkirk. The film works because it holds no central leadership, but Murphy slots nicely into the war-torn picture. 

The film came on the heels of three series of Peaky Blinders, which might explain why Murphy’s English accent sounds so natural. Those halcyon dates of “Cark” vowels are nowhere to be heard in this part, showing how much Murphy has evolved since the early 2000s.