What’s the last major role of Paul Bettany‘s that you can remember where he didn’t play a warrior priest with a sick cross forehead tattoo; a fallen angel who cuts off his wings and straps on some firepower to protect the next Jesus Christ; or an ardent (albino) Opus Dei assassin who flogs himself for his mistakes? Bettany’s been pigeonholed as the token religious character in a string of underwhelming movies — I’m surprised he didn’t find his way into M. Night Shyamalan‘s Devil — and we miss the sweet guy we first met in A Knight’s Tale.
Bettany seems to get these complicated roles because he’s an unconventional leading man: You might not trust him as the toothy, successful hero of a romantic comedy, and you wouldn’t want to. He doesn’t fit the very specific mold of a common protagonist, so instead he elected for parts where he was the sidekick or confidante — slightly off-center when it came to the main action, but compelling enough that you almost cared more about his issues than the main character’s.
I first heard of Bettany — was first delighted by his work, really — opposite Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale, where he played the drunken, hyperbolic writer Geoffrey Chaucer. Similarly, in A Beautiful Mind he was Russell Crowe‘s snappy, melancholy college chum. But then he became famous enough to carry a movie on his own shoulders, or at least had the chance to.
Now, it seems the only way that studios will put Bettany on the movie poster will be if they’ve morphed him into something that’s not the straightforward male lead, a man whose character is nearly determined by his situation rather than the other way around. His supporting role in The Da Vinci Code cemented that transition: He played Silas, the Opus Dei monk who tracks Tom Hanks and makes for a terrifying adversary, though still subject to his shadowy employer.
Then came Legion and this week’s Priest. In contrast to the faithful Silas, both movies have Bettany cast as a fallen hero struggling against an overwhelming power to still do the right thing. He’s an archetype, nothing more. In fact, his character is named Priest. We know nothing about him, and we don’t need to know anything.
It’s a shame that these movies don’t do well, because Bettany is a talented actor who deserves more recognition. My recommendation? Put him in more projects like Wimbledon, where he played aging tennis star Peter Colt: Over the hill and the underdog, self-deprecating but still seized with the desire to win. It’s one of his best roles because it suited him so well.