Berlinale: Sharlto Copley's bravura act as Unabomber makes 'Ted K' stand out

Deccan Chronicle.  | Suparna Sharma

Entertainment, Hollywood

Tony Stone’s film 'Ted K', which had its world premiere at the 71st International Film Festival of Berlin on Monday, stands out

The South African actor, known for his performance as Wikus van der Merwe in the 2009 science fiction film 'District 9', carries 'Ted K' with a meticulously studied but intense act that is as discomforting as it is impressive.

New Delhi: Evil is beguiling, evil geniuses more so. They excite us like tantalising puzzles that we want to examine and solve.  

Writers, film directors, theatre owners and audiences are almost like law enforcement officers in their pursuit to understand psychopaths and that’s why they keep revisiting terrorists, serial killers, rapists -- for yet another peek into their minds, their homes, their rage, and their crimes.

But, psychopaths are also cliches.

Almost every exploration of a criminal mind that's been mounted on the big screen or split into episodes for OTT platforms is a trek down a familiar road. En route there are absentee or overbearing parents. Some physical or emotional abuse. There’s unease in mundane, social situations. Solace in solitude. And there’s almost, always, sexual frustration.

Given this template, there is nothing exceptional in the story of Theodore Kaczynski, or as he is better known, Ted Kaczynski, America’s Unabomber. And yet, writer-director Tony Stone’s film Ted K, which had its world premiere at the 71st International Film Festival of Berlin on Monday, stands out.

To tell the story of the Unabomber, Stone uses real television clips, Kaczynski’s writings, diary entries — which were copious and in numerical code — and meshes them with an intense, bravura performance by Sharlto Copley.

The South African actor, known for his performance as Wikus van der Merwe in the 2009 science fiction film District 9, carries Ted K with a meticulously studied but intense act that is as discomforting as it is impressive.

He remains in an unrelenting wired state throughout, whether he is raging against the whirring helicopters overhead, the pillage of the earth around him, building a bomb or complaining to a telephone company official about the $5 and few cents that a public phone owes him.

We watch, in his body and face, as his complexes, sense of superiority, frustration turn into a raging, mad desire to seek revenge on corporates, technology, one parcel bomb at a time.

Great performances, especially in biopics, are marked by that moment when the actor becomes the character, embodying and portraying all the ugliness and physicality while creating an inner cosmos that we can read in their eyes, in the tiniest change of expression.

Copley as Kaczynski, a mathematics prodigy who joined Harvard University at the age of 16 but then checked out to live by himself in Montana mountains in a 10-by-12 wood cabin, is on the screen throughout. Except for a few brief scenes in the 120-minute film, the camera stays on Copley and there is not a single false note in his compelling act.

Among the younger lot in Hollywood, Christian Bale, Leonado de Caprio, Matthew McConaughey, Javier Bardem, Joaquin Phoenix, James Franco and Bradley Cooper are names taken with reverence in terms of how much they give of themselves to a role.

Difficult films with demanding roles can ride on them.

To that hall of fame, Ted K adds the name of Sharlto Copley. He creates the sort of scary, uneasy portrait of a man in constant distress and rage that won’t ever leave you.

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