No one, as far as I know, has come to the Berlinale in search of Gillian Anderson, the strawberry-blonde vixen who set millions of hearts aflutter -- and not just male ones -- with her role in the supernaturally beloved ’90s show The X-Files. But Anderson has surprised those of us who love her by showing up -- in small roles, but still -- in two films here, James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer and Ursula Meier’s Sister. In Shadow Dancer, a thriller set in early-‘90s Belfast, she’s a British secret-service officer who squares off against a colleague (played by Clive Owen). In Sister, she’s the well-heeled patron of a tony Swiss ski resort -- and a mom -- who befriends a young thief and rapscallion who barely knows what it means to be a child.
Anderson hasn’t really been in hiding. She was one of the best things -- perhaps the only good thing -- in last year’s Johnny English Reborn, and she recently played Miss Havisham in the British TV adaptation of Great Expectations. She chooses her roles carefully and doesn’t seem particularly attracted to big Hollywood vehicles -- though it’s more likely that Hollywood isn’t particularly interested in her, which is certainly its loss.
There are plenty of movies to parse and examine here at the Berlinale, but at dinner last night with some colleagues (who happened to be guys), Anderson came up in the conversation, and we just looked at one another: “Gosh! Isn’t she something?” is the gist of what we said. Perhaps we love her more because she shows up so infrequently and so fleetingly, like a ginger comet. Her role in Shadow Dancer is small and tokenlike, but it’s interesting for its metallic coldness, not a quality we usually associate with Anderson. Then again, maybe it’s really just a mirror angle of the clinical skepticism she brought to the role of Dana Scully in The X-Files: She’s good at playing characters who can turn the warmth off when it gets in the way of the goal at hand, and in Shadow Dancer, she plays a character who’s all about goals.
In Sister, Anderson isn’t strawberry blonde but truly blonde, and the first glimpse we get of her is a mane of glorious, rich-girl hair. At first I could see only the oblique planes of her face and, not knowing she was in the movie, I thought to myself, “Could it be...?” Her role is small but potent: Her character, skiing at the resort with her own kids, meets the young thief Simon (played, beautifully, by a kid actor named Kacey Mottet Klein), and the two are immediately charmed by each other. He pretends to be a the son of the resort’s owner, when really he’s a mighty mite of a hustler who scrambles to make a living for himself and his sister (Léa Seydoux).
Anderson scrutinizes his face as he advertises this fanciful false background -- you can see, in this tiny but potent scene, that she’s amused by him and yet somehow, instinctively, she also feels protective. It’s not that she doesn’t believe his tale (she seems to buy it all); it’s that her better judgment tells her that this kid is in need of something, and though she can’t be the one to provide it, she grants him the kindest gift she can: She takes him seriously, reacting to him as if he were the miniature adult he’s trying so desperately to be, meeting him on his own scrappy turf.
That’s a lot to pack into a few small scenes, and it’s a bit frustrating that her character’s role in the drama isn’t better worked out -- her final encounter with Simon doesn’t feel true to the woman we met earlier. On the whole, the picture is unevenly worked out, but it’s ultimately touching, thanks to the bittersweet grace notes scattered throughout. Anderson is one of those grace notes; her presence is as subtle as a sigh, but it’s the kind that sticks with you long after the credits roll.