All by myself: how the greatest solo film performances worked their magic

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In Les Miserables, Anne Hathaway she won an Oscar for crying – but how is she with cryo? She’s just signed up for O2, a race-against-time movie centred on a woman who wakes up trapped in one of those sci-fi hypersleep pods so beloved of the Alien franchise. It sounds like a juicy premise for a tense thriller – O2’s amnesiac protagonist must escape before her air supply runs out – but it will also see Hathaway join a cinematic club currently dominated by men: movies that are solo showcases for one actor.What could Hathaway learn from other recent examples?

This claustrophobic horror combines two of human beings’ greatest fears: being buried alive and having no access to a phone charger. Entombed in a crude coffin somewhere in the Iraqi desert, Ryan Reynolds has to try and extricate himself with only an ailing Blackberry to hand. Will he make the right call? Reynolds dials down his usual glibness in favour of escalating panic, but much of Buried’s power comes from director Rodrigo Cortés’s decision to stay right there in the box with him. There are no cutaways to the surface, no tension-relieving flashbacks, no whiff of fresh air or escape. It is a nightmare-inducing tactic, and perhaps one Hathaway’s as-yet-unconfirmed O2 director should adopt.

There aren’t many laughs in Dunkirk but some wags have pointed out that, with his shearling-trimmed jacket and face-obscuring mask, Tom Hardy seems to be secretly reprising his role as Batman baddie Bane. In fact, his Spitfire captain arguably has more in common with Welsh cement wizard Ivan Locke, another pro stolidly piloting a vehicle south, uncertain about what awaits him. Writer-director Steven Knight’s completely BMW-set chamber piece turns a series of hands-free phone conversations during a late-night motorway haul into a surprisingly affecting thriller. Locke’s hands may be glued to the steering wheel, but Hardy’s agitated eyes suggest a man achingly adrift. When it comes to acting solo, the eyes have it.

After some scene-setting preamble and a jolting plane crash, Robert Zemeckis’s desert island survival tale zeroes in on Tom Hanks for two whole hours. Perhaps because of the affection with which the Forrest Gump star is held by audiences, this Crusoe karaoke made over $400m worldwide. Crucially, Cast Away hinges on a four-year time jump and Zemeckis paused production for an entire year so Hanks could downsize himself from doughy FedEx drone to gaunt, loincloth-wearing crusty. That might be beyond Hathaway’s more modestly-budgeted $10m effort, but perhaps she could befriend a rolling cryo-maintenance droid called W1L5ON?

More trouble at sea, with Robert Redford’s yacht abruptly holed by a rogue shipping container somewhere in the Indian Ocean. With his technical equipment totally banjaxed, the 77-year-old unnamed sailor is totally becalmed but carries on, even as things inexorably get worse. With no radio, phone or even volleyball to talk to, it is an unusually taciturn performance from Redford, but the old hand is terrific at physically communicating his mariner’s various thought processes as he furrows his brow to improvise solutions to a cascade of life-or-death problems. Fewer lines can mean more impact, so maybe Hathaway should buy a red pen now.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning orbital rollercoaster technically starred two headline actors: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. But after a space disaster, we’re soon down to just Bullock, a biomedical expert with minimal astronaut training who must suddenly engineer a safe return to Earth. Despite the nominally realistic setting, writer-director Cuarón adds dreamlike touches – his camera floats through Bullock’s polycarbonate visor; a key character unexpectedly returns – and he really nails the ending. Having making us fear for Bullock as she spins through space as an insignificant speck, the final, Imax-ready shot renders her 50ft tall. Hathaway should insist on a similarly epic finale.

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