A woman, accidentally caught in a dark deal, turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic.PT2M31S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-3chqj 620 349 July 24, 2014
It's not Scarlett Johansson's fault that I used to hate her. Thanks to the vagaries of film distribution, there was a fateful week in 2006 when I couldn't go near a cinema without her face looming up. Here she was as a student journalist in Woody Allen's Scoop! There she was as a girlfriend in Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia! And there she was again, a magician's assistant, in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige!
There was something missing in her performances. In the hard-boiled world of The Black Dahlia, she was like a schoolgirl modelling the contents of her grandma's wardrobe. Was it the va-va-voom figure (a joyously pneumatic alternative to the usual stick-insect school of starlet) or the voice (a husky femme fatale drawl that sounded as though she smoked 60 Chesterfields a day) that blinded filmmakers to the fact she was still girlish and jejune, without the life experience to give depth to the juicy roles they were bestowing on her?
Stepping up her game: Scarlett Johansson in Lucy.
She had, though, been acting in films since the age of nine. Born in New York in 1984 to a Danish-born father and an Ashkenazi mother, Johansson made her screen debut in Rob Reiner's North. A few years later, Robert Redford, who directed and acted with her in The Horse Whisperer, famously declared she was "13 going on 30". The Coen brothers evidently agreed, casting her as the innocent-looking schoolgirl pianist whose lewd advances towards Billy Bob Thornton cause him to crash his car in The Man Who Wasn't There.
But in 2001, fine as she was as Thora Birch's best friend in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, it was Birch whom everyone was tipping for the brilliant future. Which just goes to prove William Goldman's maxim that when it comes to predictions about the movies, "nobody knows anything".
Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola's arthouse hit, changed everything. Johansson held her own opposite Bill Murray, but it helped that Coppola had cast her astutely, as a slightly naive young wife, and created an indelible image with the film's opening shot of the actress's derriere in see-through knickers.
She gave a watchful performance as the painter's model in Girl with a Pearl Earring, but in Match Point, her first film with Allen, she was cast as a cartoon vamp who morphs overnight into a pathetic ninny. Michael Bay's The Island reinforced the impression there was less to her than met the eye.
And then something happened. Scarlett Johansson became interesting (Fairfax reviewer Jake Wilson agrees). In We Bought a Zoo, she brought such unexpected depth to a bland girlfriend role it made you wish you were watching her story, not Matt Damon's. Her sassy Janet Leigh was one of the highlights of Hitchcock, and her extraordinary performance in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin is clearly the work of an actress who is endlessly curious, a good sport, and willing to take risks in her career.
Perhaps it was her work in live theatre that gave her that extra oomph. She won a best actress Tony for her performance as Catherine in A View from the Bridge in 2009.
Or is it simply that the actress finally grew into the figure and voice for which she had previously been just a little too young? That voice especially: she was such obvious casting as Samantha, the Siri-like operating system in Spike Jonze's Her, it's hardly surprising Joaquin Phoenix fell in love with it.
And, of course, it was hard to resist her as Black Widow, cracking wise in skin-tight black leather in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. She was granted even more screen time in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though was still playing second fiddle (it's symptomatic of the Marvel Universe that we have yet to see a film called "Black Widow"). Let's just hope she gets a fair crack of the whip in next year's Avengers: Age of Ultron.
In the meantime, Johansson plays another kind of superheroine in Luc Besson's Lucy, as a drug mule who accidentally overdoses on the substance she has been forced to smuggle, and finds herself accessing parts of the brain that were never meant to be accessed. Her new superpowers include controlling gravity and instantly changing her own hair colour.
It's not exactly a role that gives her the chance to flex new acting muscle, but she does strut through it with aplomb. Scarlett Johansson is no longer girlish and jejune. Now she has authority and presence. Now she's interesting.