Jude Law: The golden boy

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The Independent Online

"Explain to me what anyone sees in that Eurotrash," whines an unimpressed blonde in a Manhattan nightclub, where all female eyes are on Alfie Elkins. No one obliges, so the camera explains for her: it settles lovingly on a three-quarter profile shot of Alfie's face as he looks to the left, grins his dream-boyfriend grin and inhales on a cigarette. The Doubting Thomasina is won over instantly. Her face softens, her eyes widen, her lips part. Had there been an electrocardiagram around, it would have shown that her heart had quite melted.

"Explain to me what anyone sees in that Eurotrash," whines an unimpressed blonde in a Manhattan nightclub, where all female eyes are on Alfie Elkins. No one obliges, so the camera explains for her: it settles lovingly on a three-quarter profile shot of Alfie's face as he looks to the left, grins his dream-boyfriend grin and inhales on a cigarette. The Doubting Thomasina is won over instantly. Her face softens, her eyes widen, her lips part. Had there been an electrocardiagram around, it would have shown that her heart had quite melted.

Everyone falls for Alfie in the film that bears his name. Most live to regret it, but everyone in possession of a womb simply faints with longing at his approach. A fair percentage of the UK's film audience - more than 50 per cent - have a similar response to the actor who plays him, Jude Law. Despite his considerable acting skills and the passion and emotional range he can bring to a role, it is Law's superficial gorgeousness that engages viewers. By common consent, he is the most beautiful man on celluloid, eclipsing even Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt.

But you don't need to ask your women friends to corroborate this, because the camera clearly loves him too. Through its lens, his eyes shine with a strange, inhuman radiance; in The Talented Mr Ripley; they seemed to take on the sheeny blue of the Mediterranean setting. Caressed by shadows, his cheekbones could open oysters. He has no bad side. His face moves through a succession of perfect film stills. His mouth is unusually pink and pouty. His chin is often laddishly unshaven. His frame is ludicrously slender and boyish. We have it on the authority of Stephen Fry, who played Oscar to his Bosie in the film Wilde, that he has "the most stupendous arse in the history of Creation".

Charles Shyer, the director of Alfie, is clearly a little besotted with his leading man; the film spends scene after scene gazing, open-mouthed, at Law's handsome fizzog, as he rides around Manhattan on a Vespa, calls on a seraglio of girlfriends and smokes a lot. But the point of his film (based on the book and play by Bill Naughton) is to show the emptiness and spiritual bankruptcy of the Cockney lothario. Is there, the film asks, anything to Alfie once you get past his looks, his wooden compliments and plausible charm?

Something of the sort has been asked about Jude Law from his debut film, Shopping, in 1993. Playing a pretty-boy, ex-convict who went on ram-raiding escapades with his Irish moll (Sadie Frost), he was comprehensively outclassed in the bad-boy stakes by Sean Pertwee as a genuinely feral and frightening tearaway. Was Law destined to stand around in films, looking pretty but inconsequential? A decade later, one can examine his career and see how his looks have been exploited as key elements in some movies - in the sci-fi dystopia, Gattaca, he played a genetically modified image of physical perfection, in Spielberg's AI he played a robot called Gigolo Joe - and see also how he has developed and matured into a confident and enterprising leading man.

This autumn, he seems to be in every movie worth seeing. He's just opened in Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow with Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. In The Aviator, Martin Scorcese's forthcoming biopic of Howard Hughes, Law plays Errol Flynn. In Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, he's the voice of the gloomy-Gothic author Snicket. He also shows up in I Heart Huckabees directed by David O. Russell of Three Kings fame, and appears alongside Julia Roberts in Closer, the adaptation of Patrick Marber's erotic drama.

The reason for his Stakhanovite work-load is, he says, it gives him more time with his children. "One reason I chose to do so many films back to back," he told the papers, "is because a lot of them were shot in London. It was a really pleasant year to be a working dad - to have breakfast with the kids, take them to school, go off to work and return home later to put them to bed. It felt for the first time like a regular job". The note of personal equilibrium is clearly a novelty after the cataclysm in his private life during the last 18 months.

He was born in London on 9 December, 1972. His parents, Peter and Maggie, were teachers. His acting career began precociously young at 12, when he joined the National Youth Theatre and first appeared on TV in a musical version of Beatrix Potter's The Tailor of Gloucester. He was privately educated at Alleyn's school in Dulwich, which he remembers without much affection, and from which he dropped out at 17 to join the television soap Families. In 1992 he toured Italy in a stage production of Pygmalion. His first appearance on the British stage was in The Fastest Clock in the Universe which Time Out named best new play of 1992. In the next two years, Law performed at the Gate, the Royal Court and the West Yorkshire Playhouse (in Death of a Salesman). He appeared naked on stage (emerging from a bathtub) in an adaptation of Les Parents Terribles which won him "Outstanding Newcomer" in England, and "Outstanding Supporting Actor" on Broadway. Minor television parts and a short film led to Shopping in 1994.

He and his leading lady fell in love, and for years were the second most glamorous couple in movie circles. After Madonna and Guy Ritchie, Jude Law and Sadie Frost were at the top of the launch-party A-list. They had three children - Rafferty (now seven), Iris (three) and Rudy (two), and lived in thespian bliss in Primrose Hill. The most glittering, golden couple since Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, they reigned over a new filmic Camelot, and started a production company called Natural Nylon. Their friends - Jonny Lee Miller, Sean Pertwee, Rhys Ifans, Ray Winstone - were (mostly) young, sexy, talented and edgy. They had a plan. Their company would become the cool face of British independent movie-making.

It never happened. The Law-Frost gang never found the time or the finance to make anything worthwhile. Final Cut, a fake documentary shot on digital video, featured a film-within-a-film about the home life of Law and Frost, in which Law reveals how treacherous his friends are; it died on its knees. A more mainstream movie, Love, Honour and Obey, a tough, London turf-war caper starring Winstone, Law, Frost, Ifans , Miller and Pertwee, was a resounding flop.

Luckily, between these dispiriting ventures, Law discovered his mentor and saviour, Anthony Minghella, who cast him in his 1999 film of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley. Law played Dickie Greenleaf, the rich, idle, jazz-loving, ex-Ivy League bon viveur who is to be dispatched home from Italy by the appalling Ripley. Law's acting suggested a man newly transformed and inspired. He played Dickie as an innocent, a glowing life-affirming enthusiast, with secondary notes of wariness and vulnerability. Watching Law singing a gleeful Latino-jazz chorus on stage was, unquestionably, watching a new star enter the firmament. So vividly did he bring the golden-boy to life that, once he was battered to death by Ripley, the remainder of the film seemed deflated.

Last year he linked up with Minghella again for Cold Mountain, a long, austerely beautiful, Odyssey-like epic of war and homecoming, in which a Yankee deserter called Inman suffers all manner of dangers and traps on his way home to the preacher's daughter Ada (played by Nicole Kidman). Tasking his cue from his character's name, Law was a brooding, near-silent presence, his face full of quiet authority and terrible secrets.

Minghella is unstinting in his praise of his leading man. "The indomitable Jude Law," he wrote in an introduction to his screenplay, "fellow-traveller, revelation in every sense, uncomplaining in the face of being buried, submerged in a foul swamp, dragged, beaten, engulfed in a seething pit. Whatever the movie required of him, he never complained, never required me to explain". Law was nominated for a best-actor Oscar for both Minghella's films, and won a British Academy Award for Ripley.

It was during the long production shoot for Cold Mountain that rumours began to circulate that the Law-Frost marriage was in trouble. Paraparazzi photographers door-stepped their home and snapped Sadie Frost tearfully wheeling a buggy in the rain. Rumours (later denied) that Law was entwined with Kidman waxed and waned, as did reports of shouting matches in Primrose Hill, clinical depression and a suicide attempt by Ms Frost. The couple finally separated in January 2003 after six years of marriage.

Law recently told Vanity Fair it was worse than a death in the family. He moved out of the family home and bought a new house nearby in order to see the children. In May this year, Sadie allegedly lodged a £10m divorce action in London's High Court. Both have found solace in the arms of younger lovers. These days Law, 31, is solidly coupled with Sienna Miller, 22, an American actress who co-stars in Alfie as the hero's beautiful but violently flaky girlfriend, Nikki. Sadie, now 37, is always on the arm of a young flamenco guitarist called Jackson Scott, 22.

Although nobody doubts his satisfaction at being a hands-on father, Law is a demon for the party circuit. He and Ms Miller were seen at so many celebrity events this summer - including Wimbledon, Goodwood and David Frost's summer thrash - they were named "Britain's most wanted couple" by Tatler. Despite the divorce, the couple appear ostentatiously friendly in public, noisily embracing each other's new squeezes.

It's a period of calm for the UK's most bankable male movie star. According to the Hollywood trade magazines, he can now ask for $12m per picture. He's very much the clean-cut juvenile lead du choix in Hollywood, just as Colin Farrell is everyone's first choice for dirty scoundrel. And a dozen more projects are massing on the horizon; they include playing Sebastian Flyte in a remake of Brideshead Revisited, starring in a remake of All the King's Men from Robert Penn Warren's classic novel, and turning up in Superman Returns.

His film choices are as eclectic and various as ever - you'd think he'd managed his whole career to avoid boredom or typecasting - but he's earned, whether through hard work or emotional trauma, the right to be taken seriously as an actor of depth, resource and focussed intelligence. And his eyes could still melt the heart of the toughest Manhattan blonde.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: London, 29 December 1972, to Peter and Maggie Law, teachers. Elder sister, Natasha

Family: Married to actress Sadie Frost in 1997. Three children, Rafferty, Iris and Rudy. Divorced 2003

Career: Joined the National Youth Music Theatre at 12, left school for full-time career at 17, touring in theatre. First film, The Crane, a short. First feature film, Shopping (1993)

Awards: Bafta ( The Talented Mr Ripley), nominated for two Oscars ( Ripley, Cold Mountain), three Golden Globes

He says...: "At least they're not telling me I'm hideously ugly, but I would prefer it if people would focus more on the work."

They say...: "The indomitable Jude Law, fellow-traveller, revelation in every sense, uncomplaining in the face of being buried, submerged in a foul swamp, dragged, beaten, engulfed in a seething pit. Whatever the movie required of him, he never complained, never required me to explain." - Anthony Minghella, film director

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