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The Delirious Imaginarium of Daniel Radcliffe

The daring performer’s robust dramatic finesse accompanies an enthusiasm for eccentricity. Somewhere in between, magic happens.
Daniel Radcliffe In Swiss Army Man
By  · Published on November 18th, 2021

Swiss Army Man (2016)

Nothing in Daniel Radcliffe’s filmography is weirder and more wonderful than the polarizing Swiss Army Man. I wasn’t at all prepared to fall in love with a surrealist satire spotlighting a broken man who befriends a farting cadaver. But the stunning feature film debut of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (a.k.a. Daniels) juxtaposes its patently inapt premise with unexpectedly palpable compassion from Radcliffe and co-star Paul Dano.

Radcliffe’s portrayal of the all-purpose corpse — christened Manny by Dano’s erratic lead Hank — is disarmingly unique. In true dead person fashion, he spends some of the movie slack-faced without uttering a word.

Yet, when Manny eventually trades his droopy, dazed (and partially decomposing) expression for child-like phonetics, he morphs into an oddly compelling picture of purity.

Not that the film’s repeated instances of gross-out humor let Manny fully preserve that unblemished image. After all, he is an object that solely internalizes Hank’s neurotic instruction and outlook without question. Therefore, Radcliffe’s entire being is at the mercy of Dano’s puppeteering.

Both actors operate in perfect tandem. Radcliffe touts a potent screen presence mirroring Dano’s off-kilter dynamism. His earnest energy expressly facilitates the naked soul-searching that’s necessary to bring Swiss Army Man’s deliriously vibrant scenarios to life.

Imperium (2016)

In contrast to Swiss Army Man’s many peculiarities, the rest of Daniel Radcliffe’s 2016 projects comprise time-honored linear storytelling. Admittedly, his minor villainous role in Now You See Me 2 is nothing to write home about. Instead, Radcliffe delivers one of his most deliberate and finely-calibrated performances in the crime thriller Imperium.

The film focuses on FBI agent Nate Foster (Radcliffe). Although inexperienced and physically scrawny, the ambitious investigator goes undercover with a white supremacist chapter with the hope of foiling a terror plot.

Radcliffe imperceptibly oscillates between justice-driven tenacity and nonchalant toughness. The movie’s high-stakes set-ups appraise his ability to channel ferocity through silence, demanding that he remain exceptionally poised and attentive.

Imperium benefits from an engaging screenplay devoted to Foster’s mounting conflicted allegiances. Importantly, rather than be swayed by problematic ideologies, the character actively reckons the taxing, manipulative nature of his assimilative operation. Radcliffe excels in imbuing Foster with an organic moral compass. His shrewdly charismatic performance is divine.

Jungle (2017)

In the survival biopic Jungle, Daniel Radcliffe epitomizes the real-world backpacker Yossi Ghinsberg. Accompanied by a few friends and a very sketchy guide, he makes a fateful trek into the Amazon rainforest in the 1980s. However, after the group inadvertently fractures, Ghinsberg finds himself all alone at the mercy of nature’s perilous mysteries.

Jungle would not be the first entry in his filmography to test Radcliffe’s aptitude as a one-man show, although it surpasses the muted, shapeless Beast of Burden (2018) in that regard. In truth, the former stands as a stunning showcase of Radcliffe’s inviting screen presence.

Ghinsberg thirsts for capital-A adventure. This facet of the character wholly benefits from Radcliffe’s excitable, amiable personality. He is extremely convincing as an optimistic globe-trotter — immeasurably curious and fiercely open-minded.

As expected, the trials of Ghinsberg’s travels predictably break him down. Regrettably, the movie gets clumsier once it deepens in complexity. Certain revelations about Ghinsberg’s motivations feel shoehorned into the script.

That said, Radcliffe effortlessly recasts Ghinsberg’s gracious enthusiasm into selfish irritability. Importantly, the actor sticks to his guns throughout numerous arduous feats of evidently futile endurance. In a masterstroke of dramatic performance, Radcliffe demonstrates singular dedication to an emotionally honest portrayal.

Miracle Workers (2019-present)

Daniel Radcliffe’s unfeigned knack for all manner of comedy has been an exceedingly satisfying revelation for years. His adeptness for deadpan humor regularly supplements his tamer exploits. 

Radcliffe’s current work in the TBS anthology series Miracle Workers strikingly ups the ante, establishing his fearless commitment to the genre. Each season (of which there are three with a fourth on the way at the time of writing) zeroes in on an assortment of quirky characters frantically ensuring that good triumphs over evil.

Whether we encounter Radcliffe in the afterlife, the Dark Ages, or on the Oregon Trail, we quickly realize that he is game for absolutely anything. Personality-wise, all of his characters in the show exist in a socially awkward but warmly impassioned realm. They tend to be a little childish and overly virtuous, but undeniably charming.

This leads Radcliffe down frequently ludicrous and gutsy spirals, particularly by Season 3. Throw in some intentionally bad wigs, spray tan, and body glitter, and there’s never a dull moment in the show.

The interactive special Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs the Reverend (2020) is another recent venture in Daniel Radcliffe’s filmography to bank on his unfiltered zeal, this time transposing it to a feature-length stage.

Yet, the repeated no-holds-barred successes of Miracle Workers propel the actor far beyond predictable idiosyncracies and are the strongest testament to his comedic prowess.

Escape from Pretoria (2020)

For a biographical movie with a ghastly posterEscape from Pretoria sure is an unforeseen treat. Daniel Radcliffe stars as anti-apartheid activist Tim Jenkin, whose 2003 book serves as the basis of the Francis Annan thriller.

The film retells the exhilarating jailbreak of three political prisoners — Jenkin included — from the titular South African correctional facility. This dramatization takes a play-by-play approach to narrative progression. However, it is largely more interested in visceral entertainment than the sociopolitical implications of its premise.

Radcliffe himself doesn’t have the most complex character with which to work. Prior biopic efforts like The Gamechangers (2015) — though similarly straightforward in design and plot — make a more concerted attempt to tease out themes of morality.

Nonetheless, Radcliffe gets to be observant, determined, and methodical. He conceives an intensely magnetic version of Jenkin, whose uncomplicated emotional accessibility reinforces the plot’s hair-raising set-ups. Because of Radcliffe, we stay on our toes throughout the flick.

What’s Next

Daniel Radcliffe leverages both mega-blockbuster star power and indie currency with remarkable showmanship and decorum. There is definitely some untapped potential left in him, too, because I refuse to accept Playmobil: The Movie (2019) as the sole animated movie credit.

At least, there is more comedy on the horizon for Radcliffe, with the Nee brothers’ adventure flick The Lost City in 2022. He isn’t inclined to forget his roots either, given the Harry Potter 20th anniversary reunion set for the new year.

Nostalgic throwbacks aside, he is — in a word — inventive. The riskiest enterprises in Daniel Radcliffe’s filmography have often reaped hefty long-term rewards. We can never accuse him of staleness, and this only bodes well for his upcoming onscreen undertakings.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)