David Oyelowo is a masterful actor.
It’s a skillset the Brit has proven in everything from Selma to The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Although his HBO film, Nightingale, is difficult to watch, the Shakespearean-trained thespian rises above the limitations of being the sole character we see and draws us in so deftly it’s impossible to turn away.
Oyelowo stars as Peter Snowden, a sociopathic, matricidal Army veteran in the throes of insanity. The only person he appears to love as much as himself is Edward, a friend from his military days. But Peter’s obsession with Edward is toxic, and it doesn’t take long to figure out what fatal lengths Peter will go to to reunite with him.
In time for the May 29 premiere of Nightingale, here are seven devices Oyelowo uses to deliver yet another award-worthy performance.
Peter may be the only character onscreen but through phone chats, he introduces us to a world of verbal adversaries that includes his sister Vicky, a credit card customer service representative and his mother’s friends and fellow church members. A scene where Peter is exercising along with a kitschy workout video while talking to Vicky on the phone is as impressive as it is dizzying. Meanwhile, his conversations with Edward’s wife, Gloria, and his voicemail messages for Edward are incredibly heartbreaking and scary.
Thrilled that he might be seeing Edward, Peter sings and dances to Johnny Mathis’ “Chances Are” in suggestive ways. Does that mean Edward and Peter were more than friends? Oyelowo and writer Frederick Mensch leave that up for interpretation. When In Rome’s 1987 hit “The Promise,” meanwhile, sets the scene for a more suave and flirtatious Peter.
There is something impish about the way Peter behaves after committing his unspeakable act. This is punctuated by his choice of foods. When he’s being childishly defiant, he noshes on Froot Loops and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. When he’s trying to reward himself, he’s a fish, vegetables and wine kind of man. He also agonizes over what meal to make for Edward.
The Vlog Entries
It’s unclear what audience Peter is making his vlog entries for, but that doesn’t stop him from recording himself and talking about his unrequited love for Edward around the clock. He decides against posting a confession but ultimately leaves a chillingly honest message via his vlog in the end.
The Hair and Clothes
To say that Peter is stuck in the 1980s with his sartorial choices would an understatement. But this too is part of Peter’s character. He’s trapped in the past, and through tennis sweaters and the like, we see a man unwillingly to evolve. Oyelowo also brings attention to Peter’s manic moods and uses his coif and facial hair to show audiences the stages of Peter’s temporary joy, unavoidable rage and eventual guilt. The second transformation, which involves a perm and fresh shave, are so perfectly exaggerated that Peter actually looks pretty.
His Mother and Religion
Peter has a Norman Bates quality about him. But where Norman had taxidermy, Peter has framed pictures and his mother’s three-way mirror—which he talks to like he’s talking to her. Religion comes into play when Peter prays to God a few times —mostly for Edward to answer his phone—and through a number of religious figurines and tchotchkes around the house.
Turns of Phrase
Viewers will love the way Peter talks because it is hyper dramatic. He calls Vicky’s husband “Charlie Sphincter,” for instance, and dreams aloud about running away with Edward in “rugged boots and cowboy hats.” He wants to hit the road like Thelma & Louise and compares his life with Edward to Titanic except “the lovers survive the catastrophe.” But even without seeing the film, everyone knows this won’t be Peter’s fate.
Nightingale premieres this Friday, May 29, at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.