Where did you go to, my lovely?

In the three years since his last film, Daniel Day-Lewis has appeared in more gossip columns than cinemas. On the eve of his return, David Thomson profiles a lost master

GO BACK three years in the unstable history of movie-making, and Daniel Day-Lewis seemed an unequalled master. The winner of one Oscar (for 1989's My Left Foot), he had been nominated again for his wrongfully imprisoned Gerry Conlon in In the Name of the Father (1993). He did not win: Tom Hanks took the Oscar for Philadelphia, in a role that had been offered to Day-Lewis first. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that Day-Lewis would have been as "good" as Hanks. But it was a casting idea to conjure with: Day-Lewis seemed to have it in him to be a fiercer, or less sentimentally restrained explorer of HIV than Hanks. How far might he have gone in the name of research?

Equally, Day-Lewis had declined the role of Lestat in Interview with the Vampire (1994) before it went to Tom Cruise. Didn't it seem possible that Day-Lewis could have been a touch more driven and demanding as the vampire, as well as a more sexually compelling figure? And this was a moment in film history before the rather impersonal surge to stardom that is known as Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes was superb in Schindler's List (1993); he was very cunningly empty in Quiz Show (1994); he is a suitably austere romantic icon in the forthcoming The English Patient. Yet I'm not convinced that Fiennes has the natural energy or warmth for movie acting; that he knows how to grasp an audience without noticing them. Whereas Day-Lewis can be a great tyrant of the light, an inescapable actor who colours the atmosphere around him. In other words, I have a hunch he'd have been better than Fiennes in any of those three films.

Such speculation is not the only way of measuring Day-Lewis. Three years ago, he was a furious worker. Within months of opening as Gerry Conlon - the aimless kid who becomes a man of principle and resolve because he is framed - Day-Lewis had played Newland Archer, the subtle yet imprisoned New York lawyer of the 1870s in The Age of Innocence (1993). It was impossible to think of any other actor who could have covered that range with such unquestioned authority.

Nothing was announced, and likely nothing was planned, but after In the Name of the Father, Daniel Day-Lewis simply withdrew from the world in which he was a master. Thus there has been an interval of three years between Gerry Conlon and his John Proctor in Nicholas Hytner's film of The Crucible. This is, in some ways, a disappointing return. Hytner has done his job with great care. There is a true feeling for the raw, hysterical mood of 17th-century New England. But Arthur Miller's play (which he has himself adapted for the screen) seems obvious, high-minded and too allegorical for its own good. Worse than that, as far as Day-Lewis is concerned, Proctor is not a profound role. He is at the crux of a dilemma, to be sure, but more as an angle in a theorem then as some force of human nature. The Crucible, I fear, is less intriguing than the many stories about what Day-Lewis has been doing in the last three years.

There are rumours and reports enough to make an extraordinary movie or novel about an actor whose faith in his own craft snaps. Some say that Day-Lewis had become a nomad, wandering around Europe, sometimes on a motor cycle, sometimes not, living rough, camping out, trying to lose himself or become invisible. Then there was the much-publicised fact that the French actress Isabelle Adjani was having his child. Did he want to be close to them, or far away? Other reports claimed a developing friendship with the actress Julia Roberts. There were even allegations that for some of the time Day-Lewis was under medical care, that he was hardly looking after himself in normal ways.

But there was also the possibility that something vitally creative in Day-Lewis felt inhibited by his sheer success and celebrity. After all, this was the man who told Time magazine, early in 1994, that: "I love to sit and watch people. I love to sit and listen to people. And I do bitterly resent that it's not always possible now, because I'm the object of scrutiny. When the cloak that allowed you to observe is slipped from you, then the most useful and indeed fascinating tool of your work is taken with it."

Another way of putting it would be that Day-Lewis is one of those actors who needs to pursue the roots of his characters, sometimes to the point of danger. Or, if not that, to a place where he risks losing his sense of himself. Day-Lewis has been called a very romantic actor (in that he feels he has to fill himself up with the experience of his characters). Several people have noted that it is his helpless method to build up a wind of belief that then sweeps him away.

When he played the Czech doctor, Tomas, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), the director Philip Kaufman thought that Day-Lewis was willing himself to become Czech, to take on the psychic burdens of that unhappy country. And the effort left the actor wounded for some time after shooting had ended. When he played Christy Brown in My Left Foot, he lived in a wheelchair and learnt to paint with his toes. To be Hawkeye, the frontier scout, in Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans (1992), he undertook a lengthy campaign that transformed his physique, and then learnt to live and survive in the primal forest. To become Newland Archer, he lived in a Victorian hotel and walked the streets of Manhattan in his costume for the film.

In some respects, this seems an un-English approach: the idea of total immersion is more American in origin, and it has Brando, De Niro and Dustin Hoffman as some of its leading exponents. Day-Lewis has done faultless Americans, yet still he can seem as English, and as romantic, as Olivier. But he would likely scorn the English label.

He was the son of the poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis and the actress Jill Balcon, herself the daughter of Sir Michael Balcon - arguably the outstanding producer in the history of British film, the patron of Ealing comedies and many of Hitchcock's English movies. In fact, Michael Balcon outlived Cecil Day-Lewis, and was a considerable influence on his grandson. But look beneath the surface, and we find that just as the father was born in Ireland and was a young Communist, so the Balcons were Jewish, acutely aware of origins in eastern Europe.

And so Daniel Day-Lewis grew up privileged in terms of credentials and training: he went to Bedales and the Bristol Old Vic. But he also felt himself an outsider, laughed at at school because he sounded posh, because he was Jewish, and just because of his need to be something of an outcast. Thus, later on, as he made his two Irish films, he took on Irish citizenship and became a fierce emotional opponent of Englishness. In The Last of the Mohicans, just as in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), one may see and feel his belligerent scepticism for British humbug.

He acted at school, and became a notable stage actor in the early 1980s. For TV, he played Kafka in Alan Bennett's The Insurance Man - Bennett noted the strange walk Day-Lewis learnt for the part, and which he used all the time, on camera and off. Then in 1989 he was the Hamlet of the moment - until he collapsed from exhaustion in the middle of a performance.

He said at the time that he might even give up acting - and he has not worked on stage again. There is a side to him that believes in going underground, in aiding good causes, in the pursuit of cabinet-making and loveable women, and doing without that seemingly inescapable ordeal of preparing for a role and the success that comes after it. In making The Crucible, he attempted to live the harsh life of the 1690s, a regime of hard work, prayer and much privation. On screen, he is lean and taut, with what looks like years of dirt in his fingernails. He also married Rebecca Miller, the actress daughter of Arthur Miller. Which may bring steadiness and happiness to his life - if those are things he can endure.

Day-Lewis is uncanny. Watch his Newland Archer or his Hawkeye and it is not easy to believe we are seeing the same person. Yet how many films these days are deserving of such immense effort in their actors? All too often, movies regard actors as people to be cast, and then trusted to do their job. Making a film today is so expensive and so wearisome that few directors have the time to explore the things Day-Lewis expects. There is a way that he is not quite professional, even - he seeks to exceed the working norms, to break the bounds of what is called for, to become the characters offered to him. That passion is not always comfortable. Sometimes, even in the best of settings, it may be betrayed or let down: the more I look at The Age of Innocence, the more I wonder whether Martin Scorsese was able or ready to go with Day-Lewis's instincts.

The future is by no means clear. But we have seen actors before who were too serious or challenging for the working climate they faced - Laughton and Brando, at least. Daniel Day-Lewis hardly seems equipped to play "ordinary" or "starring" roles, or the sort that sustain screen careers. He seems out of love with theatre. All of which underlines the thought that those three years away may be the most fitting subject for this dangerous actor.

The Crucible (12) opens on 28 February.

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