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The indefinable allure of Tom Burke

Ahead of his turn in True Things, we take a look at the ever-changing appeal of Tom Burke, one of the most versatile and complex actors

Assurance oozes out of his every pore. Women may get hurt, but it’s not his fault. He didn’t ask them to fall so hard.

His face is one you couldn’t mistake for someone else’s. A cleft lip elevates ordinary handsomeness to something more distinctive.

This is Tom Burke, the 40-year-old actor from Kent and godson to the late Alan Rickman, who has built up a body of work characterised by a captivating ambivalence.

As the online film discourse squabbles over whether depiction equals endorsement – most strikingly in the case of Paul Thomas Anderson’s age-gap romance Licorice Pizza – Burke quietly persists with playing slippery and complex characters. 

In David Fincher’s Mank, he played Orson Welles, a tidy piece of casting as he has an old-world swagger that scans as confidence in all aspects of the humanity he performs. Good, bad, why would it matter? Value judgements are less important than the ring of truth. There is an emerging theme to the truths he brings to light. 

Our culture has a tendency to weaponise female beauty, per the noir trope of the femme fatale. Male beauty can be just as dangerous.

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In Harry Wootliff’s True Things, a romantic drama set in the seaside town of Ramsgate, ‘Blond’ (Tom Burke), fresh out of prison, shows up at the benefits office where Kate (Ruth Wilson) works. In the same breath as signing on, he asks her out. It’s not long before they are fucking against a concrete wall in a nearby car park. His magnetism draws from Kate not just her clothes, but her responsibilities. She soon enters freefall; neglecting work, relationships and sanity. 

True Things is released on April 1

Burke does layered work. Beneath the confident charisma that he uses to seduce Kate is an opacity, so that when he switches from hot to cold, it makes perfect sense. We don’t really know this man. He holds onto the mystery of a character who does not have a name for that matters less than his narrative function as a siren. Through a psychological dance of seductiveness and cruelty, he draws out the self-destructive choices this woman is willing to make for a taste of passion.

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February saw the release of The Souvenir Part II, Joanna Hogg’s second instalment of a memoir about meeting her first love while she was a film student in 1980s London. Hogg is recast as ‘Julie’ (Honor Swinton Byrne) while her first love is ‘Anthony’ (Burke). He was an older man with upper-class poise who said he worked for the Home Office. And he was a junkie who robbed her flat and died of a heroin overdose at the end of part one, so Part II is about grief. Part one, however, catapulted Burke into international consciousness with his seamless blend of charming romanticism – he sends Julie magnificent love letters – and selfish detachment. He holds her at arm’s length in order to protect his habit. 

One reason that Anthony is able to pull off a double life is because he presents as an assertive man of the world in contrast with Julie’s faltering babe in the woods. Hogg enhanced the quality of this dynamic by showing Burke a map of the story, whereas Swinton Byrne was plunged into things scene by scene.

Talking to me for Little White Lies in 2019, Hogg explained why she cast Burke. She said, “Anthony is, in a way, an actor. You don’t know if he’s performing or not. I sometimes cast non-actors but it felt right that Anthony was played by an actor – a man who’s in control and sort of directs life. So it was completely right that Tom saw the map of where we were going.” 

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Directing life with a sexually dominant energy links Blond and Anthony with Freddie, the RAF pilot Burke played in the National Theatre’s 2016 production of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. In 1950s London, Hester (the late, great Helen McCrory) leaves her stable and passionless marriage to a High Court judge to live with Freddie, whose waning interest drives her to a suicide attempt. Burke is as hot as Hades and just as cruel. The role of Freddie hinges on an actor’s capacity to rage with sexuality one minute, and scorn the next. When he flares with the former, Hester’s submission suddenly makes sense. Who could resist someone so very alive.  

A healthy respect for life-force flows through Burke’s decisions. As our culture wrangles with whether certain characters are “good” or “bad” his actorly presence harnesses the fact that what moves us are qualities that are much harder to define and grasp.

Sophie Monks Kaufman is an author and freelance film journalist

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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