The question might seem to be dripping in Anglophile presumption, but it emerges directly from this year's Oscar race.
Theatrical training is the standard answer for what distinguishes our acting cousins from across the pond. And it's hard not to marvel at the virtuosic command of speech and diction, the way veterans such as Dench, Mirren and O'Toole make music out of spoken thought. Steeped in Shakespeare and a culture committed to live performance, they have by necessity developed their physical instruments and, in particular, that region of the body that lies between the back of the throat and the tip of the tongue, which (along with our handy thumbs) is supposed to make the human species unique.
Listening to Dench narrate from her character's perspective the lurid tale unfolding in "Notes on a Scandal" is like listening to a Stradivarius — one with an unusually ironic temperament. You can practically feel her vocal cords luxuriously vibrating as she unfurls a commentary that is at once ruthlessly aggressive and perfectly civilized.
Several times throughout the film, my inner Norma Desmond chimed in with the remark, "They used to have voices!" in appreciation of Dench's vocal artistry. And when O'Toole's Maurice recites — no, verbally caresses — Shakespeare's famous sonnet "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" to the young woman he has fallen haplessly in lust with in "Venus," storm clouds of emotion blow in, as though his breath and articulation carried the palpable reality of beauty and loss animating the poem's vision.
But it's not just glorious sound that sets these British veterans apart. It's their ability to wring a multitude of complex meanings from a single uttered line. There's a quality of refinement that goes beyond the stuffiness of a George Eliot retread on "Masterpiece Theatre." Their trick? They invite us not just into their characters' minds but into their intricate thought processes as well.
Still, it's not a strictly realistic affair. These talents combine the best of American naturalism with a rich theatrical and literary heritage that recognizes drama as something more than a slice of life.
Too many of our actors, on the other hand, have become enslaved to a form of behavioral banality in which the highest value is placed on the mimicking of everyday life. The various stateside Stanislavski schools — led by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner — that incited an acting revolution in the second half of the 20th century have given way to a constricted dramatic sensibility that at its worst fetishizes the commonplace at the expense of the revelatory.
Let's face it: Realism for realism's sake grows tedious, even in films where phoniness is severely punished. But don't blame the Method, whose greatest practitioners — Marlon Brando, Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page — were master stylists, shaping, selecting, and distilling their actions to endow an appearance of reality with interpretive understanding.
Artists enlarge our world, and art is an inescapable part of the landscape. Painting, poetry, music should be as real to our actors as the range of emotions they're so careful to catalog. When Dench's Barbara, a human-scale villain with Shakespearean cunning, mordantly describes the pupils in her school as "proles," one assumes that not only has this fearsome history teacher read George Orwell, but the actress herself is conversant with the author — and knows how to italicize a cultural marker for maximum effect.
The same is true for Winslet in "Little Children," who, in playing a passionate woman trapped in a suburban New England version of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," conveys a fine-grained literary understanding of her situation that's appropriate to her overeducated character.
One doesn't get this sort of intellectual frisson from, say, Leonardo DiCaprio, not because he doesn't read (I'm sure he had plenty of Joseph Conrad to dip into on the set of "Blood Diamond") but because the kinds of roles that often come with his level of stardom have little interest in these, shall we say, more delicate values.
Action films don't have time to revel in the inner life, never mind the color, nuance and literary rumblings of words. Distracted by irony for too long, an adventure hero could easily find himself with a bullet in his brain.
So maybe the difference has as much to do with the types of independent films British actors are likely to be starring in as it does with the refreshing qualities the best of them bring to their work. There's something mutually reinforcing about this scene, which is of course nourished by a long-standing and still vibrant theatrical tradition that accepts aging and doesn't need to prettify everything for a big phony close-up.
On a predictable path
Of course the Brits and Yanks aren't the only ones in contention for best actor and actress honors this year. Spain's Penélope Cruz, the muse of Pedro Almodóvar's hypnotic if rambling "Volver," and Canada's Ryan Gosling, who definitely earned the praise heaped on him for the otherwise uneven "Half Nelson," are also in the running.
And, yes, there are homegrown talents who can go toe to toe with anyone. Forest Whitaker, who has struggled to find parts commensurate with his gifts, is allowed in the British film "The Last King of Scotland" to present a depiction of humanized villainy that bravely doesn't lose track of historical atrocities.
And Meryl Streep inspires us to once again pay homage to her, as she courageously offers glimpses of crow's-feet and genuine misery in the over-the-top fashion-world comedy "The Devil Wears Prada."