Behind all of the dense make up and bad script and horribly non-existent directing from George Lucas in Phantom Menace, I sensed in Natalie Portman one heck of a terrific young actress struggling to come up with a meaningful performance. In "Leon - The Professional", working with a superb director, her acting talent is on full display.
When one thinks of modern day child actors, Anna Paquin comes to mind, in "The Piano", because she aced out some terrific adult actresses in 1993 to win the Oscar. Well, Natalie Portman, at age 12, had Anna Paquin beat by a mile in this movie, since her character takes up about half of the movie. If not for the truly unusual and off-beat story line of this movie, Portman would have gotten a lot more attention for her role in this movie, I think.
If you just focus on Portman's facial expressions and the way she carries herself in this movie, she goes through an amazing acting range in this movie, from hurt, terrified, bored, stuck up, cool and calculating, manipulative, sweet, child-like, and pubescent sexual allure.
As mentioned by other reviewers, the uncut version restores scenes that basically give a harder edge to Natalie Portman's character. The additional scenes of her assassin training with Leon and her efforts to attract and get closer to Leon definitely put her character in a harsher light. I remember from my first viewing of the cut U.S. version that Mathilda came across as a much more sweet and innocent child. The uncut version shows her more to be a hardened child of the mean streets of New York. Given the usual Hollywood propensities, it's not that surprising that these scenes got cut for the U.S. release. The uncut version does show the fullest acting range of Natalie Portman, even if they make her character less sympathetic.
Basically, the movie skates close to, but avoids the pedophilia controversies of the "Lolita" movies by having the character of Leon adhere to a strict code of ethics that firmly blocks all of Mathilda's advances. Even at the end, when he kisses her good-by and says that he loves her, it is clearly in the vein of being her protector and a big brother/father surrogate figure.
All in all, this was a great movie. Jean Reno was just so hauntingly sad as the loner-assassin Leon. Gary Oldman was definitely over the top in his portrayal of the crazed DEA agent - you almost expected his Dracula fangs to come out and his eyes to glow red when he popped those pills into his mouth.
So all of you Natalie Portman fans, this movie is a definite must-see. All of you Phantom Menace/Attack of the Clones haters who think that Natalie Portman can't act, you've got to see this movie to understand that no, Natalie Portman is a terrific actress. It's just really, really tough to play opposite total stiffs like Hayden Christiansen and Jake Lloyd, working with an idiot director like George Lucas.