Mutton dressed as lamb’ was the phrase fierce grannies would mutter when middle-aged women dared to dress younger than their years, shunning the attire expected of them in favour of girlish clothes.
Funny, then, that on screen nowadays we are more often than not faced with the exact opposite — lambs dressed as mutton. Or playing it, at least.
Beautiful young, fresh-faced women, cast as characters sometimes decades older than them because, presumably, a correctly aged actress wouldn’t be as pleasing on the eye.
The latest film to shoehorn a lovely young actress into a much older role is The Dig, a Netflix creation charming viewers with its mix of Anglo-Saxon history and sweeping Suffolk landscape — the soothing balm we need in our recent troublesome history.
But just when you thought a dramatised version of the famous archaeological dig that took place at Sutton Hoo on the eve of World War II would be a relatively gentle topic for entertainment — notwithstanding mild irritation at the usual bleats from scholars about historical accuracy — that age-old riddle has yet again raised its head.
Why is the main character played by an actress who is a full 20 years younger than the woman she is trying to depict?
In this case, it is the talented Carey Mulligan, 35, playing the part of landowner Edith Pretty, 56.
Carey is a fine actress — but you have to wonder whether anybody considered finding a star nearer the character’s real age? Does any casting director? They do exist, after all.
Not only are most actresses depicting middle-aged women younger in reality but they are mostly chosen for looking even younger than they actually are — Carey is a fine example.
It is worth noting that Ralph Fiennes, 58, plays excavator Basil Brown, whose age at the time of the dig was 51.
But then there has always been a different rule for the boys.
Carey is just the latest in a long line of actresses cast in roles way beyond their years. Keira Knightley, at the dewy age of 32, played French novelist Colette, who was a pretty battered 47 at the time the 2018 film of the same name was set. A radiant
Elizabeth Debicki, then 28, portrayed Bloomsbury icon Virginia Woolf — a full two decades her senior — in Vita & Virginia, also in 2018. You only need to briefly glance at a picture of the formidable Woolf in her 40s to reveal she could almost be Debicki’s granny.
As for the box-fresh Tilda Swinton as the Soho-haunting Muriel Belcher in 1998’s Love Is The Devil, it’s worth reflecting that Belcher and her friend, artist Francis Bacon — played in the film by Derek Jacobi — were actually both 60 at the time the drama was set. While Derek was 60 himself in the year of the film’s release, Tilda was a mere 38.
It’s a desperate shame and there’s rarely a need for it, given that there’s no shortage of seasoned stars in their 50s and 60s — famous names including Fiona Shaw, Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson, but also a great many less famous actresses who have immense presence and experience. Yet women find the work gradually vanishing in middle age.
There is always hope, of course, that there will be glorious-old-boot parts later on, in the Maggie Smith zone. But must women wait for the dowager years to return to our screens again?
It’s an undeniable fact that the middle years are tough. Ladies, the camera wants you dew-fresh, unlined and frisky.
Even if you manage to get a plum role when you’re cast at 48, like Sally Field in Forrest Gump, you may be landed with a screen son only ten years younger.
You know who you are, Tom Hanks.
Acting can break all barriers, of course it can. Glenda Jackson played Queen Elizabeth from the age of 16 to 69 in Elizabeth R (about to be screened again, after 50 years, and well worth seeing).
But in workaday drama, which we all look at as a kind of reality, it’s dispiriting for real women on the far side of 50 to feel they are virtually invisible — as they probably are.
Especially as nobody seems to mind any number of lined silver-fox blokes playing romantic leads.
It’s high time a silver vixen played a middle-aged woman for real, unapologetically authentic down to the last wrinkle and stiff-limbed ‘oof!’ when getting out of a chair.
And, no, I don’t mean Lily James in a grey wig.
HOO’S THAT GIRL? IT’S CAREY IN MIDDLE AGE
Apple-cheeked and virtually unlined, actress Carey Mulligan (pictured left), 35, was ‘aged up’ to play landowner Edith Pretty (right), 56, in The Dig
AGE GAP: 21 YEARS
Carey Mulligan in The Dig (2021)
Apple-cheeked and virtually unlined, actress Carey Mulligan, 35, was ‘aged up’ to play landowner Edith Pretty, 56, in The Dig, about the unearthing of an Anglo-Saxon ship buried at Sutton Hoo.
She’s still quite clearly a generation younger than Basil Brown (played by 58-year-old Ralph Fiennes), who was five years younger in real life.
Carey says: ‘I suppose there is an age disparity between me and the real-life character, but then the sense of her I think was the most important thing.
‘I was aged up slightly with make-up to try to split the difference a little bit, but it was more important to honour Edith’s character and the humble, generous, extraordinary woman she was.’
WHO’S AFRAID OF GETTING OLDER, MISS DEBICKI?
Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki (left), who shot to fame in 2016’s The Night Manager, was perhaps an unlikely choice when she took on the role of novelist Virginia Woolf (right)
AGE GAP: 17 YEARS
Elizabeth Debicki in Vita And Virginia (2018)
Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki, who shot to fame in 2016’s The Night Manager, was perhaps an unlikely choice when she took on the role of novelist Virginia Woolf.
In Vita & Virginia, Debicki, then 28, laboured to portray Woolf, who was almost two decades her senior at the time of her affair with Vita Sackville-West.
The couple met when Woolf was 42 and their romance lasted until she was about 45 before fading into friendship.
EMMA’S STEP OUT OF TIME
Trim and brisk, Emma Thompson (left) played Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers (right) in the Oscar-nominated period drama Saving Mr Banks
AGE GAP: 11 YEARS
Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks (2013)
Trim and brisk, Emma Thompson played Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers in this Oscar-nominated period drama.
In it, Walt Disney struggles to persuade Travers to give him the rights to the story for his 1964 musical fantasy film. Thompson was a glamorous 54 when her film was released, whereas the writer she played was a rather matronly 65 at the Mary Poppins premiere.
EVERGREEN LIKE PETER PAN
A baby-faced 28-year-old at the time of the film’s UK release, Kate Winslet (left) plays middle-aged widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (right) in Finding Neverland
AGE GAP: 10 YEARS
Kate Winslet in Finding Neverland (2004)
A baby-faced 28-year-old at the time of the film’s UK release, Kate plays middle-aged widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in Finding Neverland.
In another unlikely piece of casting, Johnny Depp is the author J.M. Barrie. He befriends Sylvia and her four boys after meeting them in a London park, and the children prove the inspiration for his 1904 play Peter Pan.
Sylvia was 38 when Peter Pan was first performed, and died six years later.
TOO BRIGHT AND BIG-EYED TO BE A FADED ROSE
Amanda Seyfried (left) plays chorus girl-turned-actress Marion Davies (right), the mistress of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, in the biopic Mank
AGE GAP: 9 YEARS
Amanda Seyfried in Mank (2020)
Seyfried plays chorus girl-turned- actress Marion Davies, the mistress of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, in the biopic Mank, about writer Herman Mankiewicz.
Released last year, the film is largely set in 1940, when Mankiewicz was writing the screenplay for Citizen Kane. Davies was then 43 and had retired from movies five years previously.
Columnist Louella Parsons, in the pay of Hearst, would always write ‘Marion never looked lovelier’ but it wasn’t true; her best years were in the mid-1920s. Seyfried was 34 when the film was shot.
IS THIS THE LITTLE SPARROW’S LITTLE SISTER?
French actress Marion Cotillard (left) took on the role of iconic cabaret singer Edith Piaf (right) in La Vie En Rose
AGE GAP: 15 YEARS
Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose (2007)
French actress Marion Cotillard took on the role of iconic cabaret singer Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose. Cotillard, who turned 32 in 2007, played the tragic chanteuse from the ages of 38 to 47 — the point at which Piaf died of liver failure.
TILDA’S A TAD TOO FRESH-FACED
British actress Tilda Swinton (left) was decades out playing Colony Club doyenne Muriel Belcher (right) in Love Is The Devil, a biopic about the painter Francis Bacon
AGE GAP: 22 YEARS
Tilda Swinton in Love Is The Devil (1998)
British actress Tilda Swinton was decades out playing Colony Club doyenne Muriel Belcher in Love Is The Devil, a biopic about the painter Francis Bacon.
Aged 38 and six months pregnant with twins, she played Belcher at the age of 60.
A MUM WHO SEEMS JOLIE YOUNG
Confusion reigned when Angelina Jolie (pictured above in Alexander), then 29, portrayed Colin Farrell’s mother Olympias
AGE GAP: 20 YEARS
Angelina Jolie in Alexander (2004)
Confusion reigned when Angelina Jolie, then 29, portrayed Colin Farrell’s mother Olympias.
He was 28 at the time. The film depicted the reign of the Macedonian king, from age 20 to 33, at which point his mother would have been middle-aged. Angelina, though, had her history a little muddled. She says: ‘I age through the movie, though he was quite young when he died, about 19.
‘So it’s not like his mother was that old by the end. She’s mid-30s.’
She was nominated for two ‘Razzie’ awards — worst actress and worst fake accent.
BABY FACE OF THE BELLE EPOQUE
Keira Knightley (left) was 32 when the film was released in January 2018, and played Colette (right) at the age of 47
AGE GAP: 15 YEARS
Keira Knightley in Colette (2018)
Some were enchanted by British actress Keira Knightley in Colette, playing the French woman of letters and author of the novella Gigi and the Claudine novels.
Knightley was 32 when the film was released in January 2018, and played Colette at the age of 47.