Ian Holm was one of those impossibly talented, incredibly adaptable, classically Shakespearean trained thespians who stood out and rocked any role given to him with wit, grace, nobility and utmost class. He had a comprehensive command over dialogue and never *ever* just repeated what the script said flatly or histrionically but always gave it flair, flourish, deep meaning and always gave the viewer the impression that what he’s saying is organic, urgent and full of life. He has passed away now at age 88 but he had a legendary run in Hollywood across many genres, working with countless prolific directors on very very special films where he was always a ray of light and talent each time. Here are my personal top ten of his performances!
10. Napoleon Bonaparte in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits
Ian played Napoleon multiple times in his career but the loopy, verbosely Gallic take on the legendary conquerer here has to be my top pick. He’s off the wall, a little crazy and power drunk from just winning a war, and spends most of his appearance bellowing loudly, swilling wine and abruptly falling asleep, it’s a tongue in cheek sendup of history that he has a lot of fun with.
9. Mr. Kurtzman in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil
It’s a small role as the main character’s boss but he nails the manic satire of bureaucratic institutions perfectly. Kurtzman is the kind of under qualified, good natured nitwit who has not a clue what his role or responsibilities are really about and skips his way through the workday with cheerful indifference.
8. Terry Rapson in Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow
The obligatory ‘disaster movie scientist who no one listens to but of course is correct in his calculations,’ Ian makes Terry a convincing meteorological guru who gravely (but not without humour) heralds the incoming weather cataclysm with gravity and believable sincerity.
7. Skinner in Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille
I can picture Ian jumping, hopping and running amok in the voiceover recording booth for this insanely exuberant villain role as the nasty, pretentious hack head chef of a prestigious Paris restaurant who makes trouble for everybody. His French accent is a beauteous, stylistically bonkers creation and the sheer verve and piss-ant tenacity he puts forth into the performance is commendable.
6. Pod Clock in BBC’s The Borrowers
This lovely television adaptation of Mary Norton’s beloved book series will always have a special place in my heart. Holm gives wonderful work playing the patriarch of the pint sized Clock family, tiny humans who live secretly amongst us and scavenge our everyday objects to survive. One particular moment stands out as he gives a heartfelt monologue to his daughter Arietty (Rebecca Callard) about a pet beetle he once had when he was young to console her during a sad time.
5. Liam Casey in Sydney Lumet’s Night Falls On Manhattan
Ian isn’t the obvious choice to play an NYC police detective but Lumet’s supremely underrated crime saga sees him spectacularly portray a very conflicted officer and father who finds himself deep in a morally complex web of corruption. You get the sense that this really is a man who set out with the best intentions, for himself, his son (Andy Garcia) and his longtime partner (James Gandolfini) and you can really feel the hurt, deep regret and profound conflict resonating from his performance. Plus he rocks the Brooklyn accent like nobody’s business.
4. Sir William Gull in The Hughes Brothers’ From Hell
I can’t really nail this blurb without wading into spoilers so be warned past this point! Ian brings a deliciously delicate, elegantly malevolent energy to Gull, an aristocratic medical practitioner who, yes, is in fact infamous serial killer Jack The Ripper himself as well. When the final act rolls in his eyes literally go all black like a shark’s and he proclaims with deadly soft spoken maliciousness: “One day men will look back and say that I gave birth to the Twentieth Century.” It’s enough to get us shaking in our boots and a terrifyingly intense villainous turn.
3. Ash in Ridley Scott’s Alien
The ultimate android with an ulterior motive, Ash is a quiet, observant and ruthlessly pragmatic creature by design. He holds the company’s interests above all and when his treachery leads to his end he ironically wishes his crew mates good luck before checking out. It’s perhaps his most iconic role and certainly one of his best.
2. Vito Cornelius in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element
He brings a wonderful, theatrical physicality and exuberance to the role here, a priest of an ancient order tasked with literally helping to save the world. There’s a realistic familial dynamic between him, his twitchy assistant (Charlie Creed Miles), Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich that makes for one of the most engaging, winning troupe of protagonists in film.
1. Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit
This is the treasured, cherished favourite for me. He brings such warmth, haunting complexity and kindhearted humour to Bilbo that I couldn’t imagine any other actor in the role, and even Martin Freeman, although terrific, didn’t hold a candle to the essence Ian brought to this classic Tolkien character. I can quote every line verbatim, picture every mannerism in my head and often find myself walking or biking somewhere and I’ll softly sing “The Road Goes Ever On” in my head and imagine Ian’s Bilbo joining in with me. The road does go ever on and Ian has taken it over the hill and past the horizon into his next great adventure. Thank you for Bilbo and Godspeed on your journey Sir.