Top 10 Best James McAvoy Performances

by Cammy Madden
James McAvoy

With Dark Phoenix, IT: Chapter 2, and Glass due out for release next year, I felt like it was time to look at one of the main cast members of all of those films: James McAvoy. Originally from Scotland, McAvoy has become a major player in Hollywood over the last decade or so. In this top 10 list, I’m going to look at the top 10 performances by James McAvoy. I’ll focus more on his performance rather than the success of the actual movie. So let’s dive right in!

#10: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)


image via Bustle

For many people, myself included, the first major appearance of James McAvoy on the big screen was in this childhood classic. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has a number of big stars from Liam Neeson to Tilda Swinton. Starring as Mr. Tumnus, McAvoy plays a faun: a combination of human and goat. Despite not being a main character in this movie, it did allow McAvoy to demonstrate his acting ability. Of course such a successful movie may even have been his ticket to bigger roles.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with McAvoy’s performance in this movie, there is a reason its way down at number 10. Watching this movie back, you can see that his range as an actor was still being developed. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly can’t criticize his ability to play a goat-man. But when compared to his more recent performances, there is really no competition.

#9: Trance (2013)


image via Craigkell

Trance is a rather bizarre movie that combines a criminal underworld with an art dealer and a hypnotist. Directed by Danny Boyle, this movie isn’t bad but it also isn’t that great. While it isn’t a movie that leaves a lasting impression, some of the performances are still great. McAvoy plays Simon, the previously mentioned art-dealer. Simon has a painting stolen from his art gallery at gun point. However, when the thieves open their prize they discover it’s a decoy. Despite torturing Simon, it seems that he has no idea where the real painting is.

When it’s discovered that he has no memory of the painting’s location, a hypnotist is brought in to recover the memory. The movie then takes audiences down a rabbit hole and into a rather wacky tale. McAvoy’s performance is arguably one of the best aspects of this Boyle movie. Audiences really feel like their watching someone whose mind and actions are being pulled by strings.

#8: Welcome to the Punch (2013)


image via AceShowbiz

Welcome to the Punch puts McAvoy in the lead role alongside Mark Strong. This British crime drama follows Detective Inspector Max Lewinsky (McAvoy) as he gets a small window of opportunity to catch the notorious criminal (and the man who shot him), Jacob Sternwood (Strong). This high-intensity thriller is all bark with no bite, in my opinion. It’s your bog-standard tale of cop vs criminal. We’ve all witnessed this type of revenge story before so it’s certainly not anything original.

That being said, McAvoy’s performance is as good as you could expect from such a movie. While he doesn’t quite nail the accent for the entirety of the movie, he does a pretty good job. Considering he’s starring alongside Mark Strong, McAvoy certainly had a lot to live up to. So while this movie may not be the sort that you watch twice, the performances are still great.

#7: Submergence (2017)


image via Film.AVClub

Without being dramatic, Submergence is one of the most boring movies I’ve ever watched. That’s not to say that it didn’t have potential, because it certainly did, but when the movie ends you don’t feel like a story has been resolved, or even told. Part of me wanted to leave this movie off the list entirely but there’s no denying that the cast worked well with what they were given. McAvoy plays James More, an SAS officer posing undercover as a water expert in Somalia. Starring alongside McAvoy as his character’s love interest is Alicia Vikander.

This movie tells the love story of two people separated not just by distance, but by the elements. Danielle Flinders (Vikander) is deep below the Greenland Sea as Somali radicals are torturing her partner. The switch between the two characters, as well as flashbacks, does paint a wonderful picture but just doesn’t pack much of a punch. However, as radicals torture More, it offers McAvoy the opportunity to really display his acting ability. This character is truly unique in comparison to any other role the actor has played, often being compared to a strong, silent, James Bond type.

#6: Wanted (2008)


image via Fandango

One of McAvoy’s earlier big-screen debuts was as the lead character in Wanted. Starring alongside big names such as Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, and Chris Pratt, McAvoy plays Wesley: an anxiety-ridden and incredibly passive man with daddy issues. Upon learning that his father was an assassin, killed by a rogue member of the group, Wesley is begins training to take down his father’s killer.

Wanted is a fairly entertaining movie with some great visuals. If you like assassins, guns, explosions, and crazy slow-motion kills, then this movie will tick all of those boxes. McAvoy’s performance in Wanted may come across as similar to that of Trance or Welcome to the Punch, but you can feel his character grow throughout the movie. His portrayal of an anxiety ridden bully victim who struggles to survive his day-to-day life is entirely believable. However, as the character develops his skills and becomes a bad-ass, you can feel his determination. Not just to get revenge, but also to find meaning in his life.

#5: The Last King of Scotland (2006)


image via Comicbook and Movie Reviews

Just one year after playing the innocent Mr. Tumnus in the classic tale of The Chronicles of Narnia, McAvoy appears alongside Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. McAvoy plays Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, a recent graduate from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. With his prospects looking rather grim, Garrigan chooses to search for adventure elsewhere in the world. By becoming a missionary in Uganda, he soon becomes the trusted physician of Idi Amin (Whitaker). This story, which is based on true events, leads audiences through a story of paranoia and violence.

McAvoy manages to portray the rather naive and ignorant Garrigan as circumstance throws him into the violent reign of Idi Amin. When watching this movie (many years ago) I felt the fear of the character through the screen as his chances of escaping Uganda become bleaker and bleaker. As a Scot, it’s always refreshing to see a Scottish actor playing a Scottish character. McAvoy is a great actor but some of his accents in other movies aren’t fantastic. After seeing The Last King of Scotland, it doesn’t surprise me that McAvoy is becoming such a major player within Hollywood.

#4: Victor Frankenstein (2015)


image via Nerdist

Victor Frankenstein is another movie that had potential but ultimately failed to deliver. Admittedly, it must be difficult to re-tell a story that almost everyone in the Western world is familiar with. Whether you’ve seen Young Frankenstein, Van Helsing, I, Frankenstein, or countless others, you’re probably aware of the creation of Mary Shelly’s classic creature in one way or another.

McAvoy stars as Victor Frankenstein, alongside his faithful servant, Igor (Daniel Radcliffe). Personally, I’ve never found his co-star, Radcliffe, to be all that great an actor. Even when watching the Harry Potter movies as a kid, my biggest issue was with his acting. In saying that, both stars play their respective roles well. The mad genius, Dr. Frankenstein, really gives off a sense of genuine insanity. This is a man who will stop at nothing to create life.

#3: X-Men Franchise (2011-Present)


image via Hollywood Reporter

Some people are probably wondering how I can put McAvoy’s performance as Professor X so high on this list. Particularly above his roles in The Last King of Scotland or any of his other movies. In my opinion, most of the X-Men movies are average (at best).  McAvoy’s accent (which I’d say is his main flaw) feels out of place throughout all three. However, one of the benefits of these younger generation X-Men movies is that we get to see a different side to Professor X. McAvoy manages to make the character original but still connected to Patrick Stewart’s Professor X.

This is important when we’re seeing these new stories being told. Audiences get glimpses into the darker years of Professor X’s life. McAvoy can’t be blamed for the rather repetitive stories being told throughout the entirety of the X-Men franchise. However, I can’t imagine anyone else playing a young Professor X. We’ll just have to see how Dark Phoenix plays out. So far it certainly looks like the same X-Men story we’ve been told 6 times already.

#2: Filth (2013)


image via Digital Spy

McAvoy stars in Filth as Bruce Robertson: an ambitious, deceptive, drug-using, misanthrope. With a promotion up for grabs, Robertson will stop at nothing to get it. At first glance, Filth seems like Trainspotting but from the point of the Edinburgh Police Force. However, it only takes a few minutes of the movie’s run-time to see that this isn’t the case. With Roberson’s mental health declining and an alarming rate, McAvoy portrays the disturbed and erratic nature of this character perfectly.

There were times when watching this movie where you feel like you’re plunging into insanity alongside this character. McAvoy’s performance isn’t just believable; it’s alarming and rather terrifying. Betraying friends, colleagues, and enemies alike, every part of you wants to hate this vile and immoral character. However, you can’t help but laugh (all be it uncomfortably) at the depths he will go to in order to win. I strongly believe that McAvoy’s performance in Filth led to his role as a bonkers character in some of his latest movies, which make it in at first place.

#1: Split (2016)


image via Film School Rejects

Kevin Wendell Crumb is a disturbed individual with as many as 23 other personalities contained within his mind. In Split, we see the character kidnapping three girls with the intention of feeding them to a new, powerful personality: The Beast. McAvoy may be one man but he plays a number of different characters within this movie: The OCD-ridden Dennis, nine-year-old Hedwig, fashion-conscious Orwell, Patricia, Jade, Barry, and more. Each time a new personality “takes the light”, you truly feel like there is someone new on screen.

Watching McAvoy switch from a dancing and naive Hedwig to a rather psychotic Dennis was truly entertaining. Part of me wishes this hadn’t been a supernatural M. Night Shyamalan movie but rather just an exploration of an individual with multiple personalities. In saying that, seeing McAvoy’s depiction of “The Beast” is incredibly intense and animalistic. There is that feeling of watching something that isn’t quite human. With Glass coming to the big screen next year, seeing McAvoy star alongside Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson will be truly fascinating. We can only keep our fingers crossed and hope that the movie delivers.

Thank you for reading! What is your favorite James McAvoy role and/or movie? Comment down below!

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Veronica Clarke December 8, 2018 - 4:17 am

Glad to see ‘Split’ at number 1. He was awesome in that role.

Michael Seidel November 26, 2018 - 10:03 pm

I. too, thought of Atonement, and was surprised to see it wasn’t on this list. I enjoyed McAvoy on several Brit TV series, including Shameless, Foyle’s War, and State of Play. With The Last King of Scotland and Atonement, I was pleased he’d made a successful transition to the big screen.I enjoyed him in Filth but not many of my friends liked it, and also liked him in Atomic Blonde, but that’s my problem. Cheers

Cammy Madden November 27, 2018 - 6:58 am

Yeah that’s fair. The reason that Atonement isn’t there is simply because I haven’t seen the movie. I felt it only made sense to add the performances I’d actually witnessed myself, even if that meant leaving out the odd movie where his performance may have been great.
I’m curious, what did you friends not enjoy about Filth?

Michael Seidel November 27, 2018 - 11:01 am

My take on their comments (from what I remember, as it’s been a while), too many things happening, and they struggled to stay clear about what’s going on. IMO, it had to be watched closely and thought about, and they prefer a more straightforward story.

All agreed that McAvoy did a great job, but they didn’t like the movie. None of them had read the book. I had, as I’m an Irving Welsh fan, and thought McAvoy was powerful and spot on.

Writergurlny November 26, 2018 - 8:25 pm

I’m curious, where is Atonement on your list?

Cammy Madden November 27, 2018 - 6:56 am

I haven’t actually seen Atonement so even though I’d heard that his performance was pretty good in it, I didn’t want to add it to the list without having watched the movie

Writergurlny November 27, 2018 - 7:54 am

That makes sense. He is very good in it, but that’s my opinion.

Nick Kush November 26, 2018 - 7:19 pm

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