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"We have a favourite word today: It's 'genteel,'" Charlotte Rampling says. "Apparently we like to do genteel films, Geoffrey and me."

She's sitting next to Geoffrey Rush on a sofa in a Toronto hotel room, and the two are receiving journalists to discuss their new film, The Eye of the Storm, which opens Friday. I say "receiving" because there's something courtly going on here. A single chair is placed opposite the two of them. As you are ushered in and introduced, you tacitly understand that you are being granted an audience with Thespians and should act with appropriate deference.

Their styles are quite different, however. Rampling sits on Rush's right, absolutely erect, wearing a smart black suit and a look on her face that, while pleasant, conveys that she is tolerating these proceedings because it is her obligation to do so, and though she suspects you will ask her nothing original, she will for a time give you the benefit of the doubt. When you prove her right with a dull question, she gazes serenely into the middle distance and lets Rush field it. When you stir her interest, she will fix you with a heavy-lidded look and provide a succinct answer in her deep, thrilling voice, which sounds like a carriage rolling toward you carrying something grand and possibly decadent.

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Rush, on the other hand, is consistently engaged, alternately hunkering forward conspiratorially or leaning back against the sofa to declaim. He's not actually wearing an ascot, but somehow it feels like he is. He's an eager answerer, expansive, with a mobile face and an expressive delivery – he elongates key words, raises his pitch or drops it to a murmur. His references roam through history, from Medea to Marie Dressler. Days later, you will run into him at a party and he will take the time to flatter you, in a smoothly professional way. "I love talking to women," he'll say. "They're more interesting than men."

You gather that a number of interlocutors this morning have referred to The Eye of the Storm as genteel, and you suspect this is because it is a classic family drama, old school in the best sense. Directed by Fred Schepisi ( Roxanne, Six Degrees of Separation) and written by Judy Morris from the novel by Patrick White, it takes its time unfolding, and drills down on character. But "genteel" is not a word you'd choose; "harrowing" seems more apt.

Rampling plays Elizabeth Hunter, an archetypal, selfish-monster mother – hence the Medea reference – who glides through life doing as she pleases, at once the storm and its eye. She dominates her staff and abuses her two grown children, Basil (Rush) and Dorothy (Judy Davis), yet remains unconcerned about whatever damage she's wrought. Now grandly bedridden and insisting that she wants to die, she reels her heirs in for one last audience. Though Rampling, at 65, is only five and nine years older than Rush and Davis, respectively, it matters not – she essays with equal fierceness both the elderly matriarch and, in flashbacks, herself as a fortysomething siren.

"It had to be one actress, capable of playing both ages," Rush says. "It must be the same imaginative soul. I thought, 'If I can chip off five years and she can add 10, we'll be all right.'"

"We'll make believe," Rampling proclaims. "And if you do really make believe, then the audience does, too. They don't think about it."

"Well, I thought about it for a minute there," you say.

"Of course," Rampling intones. "It's got to cross your mind."

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You all let that sit for a beat. Rush turns to Rampling. "I was pretty overwhelmed to be cast as your son," he says. "The first thing I saw you in was [Visconti's] The Damned, when I was at university. Then when I went to London as a young actor, there were billboards for The Night Porter all over the tube. Never in a million years did I, this Australian lad, dream that that woman would be playing my mother. It's too, too loopy."

Of course, the Australian lad became a star, too, one of the rare actors to win the triple crown of awards: a Tony (for Exit the King), an Emmy ( The Life and Death of Peter Sellers) and an Oscar ( Shine). But today he's chivalrously playing the second lead. "Then I caught up with you again in the Ozon era," he continues, still addressing Rampling. "Though I have to say, initially I was watching for Ludivine Sagnier, because I have a slight screen crush." (He's referring to French director François Ozon, who directed Rampling and Sagnier, now 32, in 2003's Swimming Pool.)

"I can bear that," Rampling announces. "I can. The divine Ludivine."

You mention that this is Rampling's year for domineering mothers – she also plays one in Lars von Trier's Melancholia. "It's not scary mothers per say that I'm drawn to," she replies, "it's wonderful, hugely complex, monstrous characters that I feel I can put something into. And if great directors ask me to do them, I say, 'Thank you very much, I will.'"

As well, Rampling is the subject of a new documentary, The Look, directed by German filmmaker Angelina Maccarone. In it, she free-associates with some of her collaborators in film and photography on nine topics, including Vulnerability, Exposure and Sensuality. "We did one take of each – it's stream of consciousness," she says. "I said, 'I'm not doing it again. Just once.'"

"Is it genteel?" Rush asks, and they both laugh.

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You venture that several of the topics sound dark. "Well, I'm not a light person," Rampling pronounces. "I'm as light as I am dark, and I can be very, very dark. But through the dark comes light."

Since that is a profoundly opaque remark, you ask her to elaborate – how does she handle the exposure? How does she decide what to reveal? "If you go and see The Look, you'll hear my answer," she purrs, with the tiniest of grins.

Rush, who knows a cue when he hears it (bless him), jumps in. "I'm very interested in playing roles, especially in theatre, where you have to surgically open some of yourself or your imagination or your personality," he says. "Because if you're just giving an audience the masquerade, I find that a waste of time. As an audience member, I've had moments where I've learned about what it is to be human from seeing astonishingly virtuosic, brave, revealing performances. And it's a very special, necessary thing. That's why I gravitate toward characters in extremes. I don't do domestic. I don't do genteel."

"We don't do genteel!" Rampling cries. "Doesn't anybody know that?"

But they sure know how to put on a show.

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