Detailed acting moment: or, the hands, for MillyMe [Spooks 9.2 spoilers!]

Lucas North (Richard Armitage) looks at what he’s pulled up from the MI-5 database on his former lover, Maya Lahan, on his laptop, in Spooks 9.2. My cap. I think the positioning of his right hand here, revealed in shadow as the light from the room hits the palm of his hand, is particularly beautiful. There’s something about the contrast of the rounded tips of the fingers with the elongation of the flat fingers themselves that’s quite moving in its signaling of gentleness.

MillyMe only wanted a cap, but the comment by iz4blue about the palpable emotion in this scene made me think we should look at it more closely, because indeed it’s a slight motion at the end that’s in my opinion the most evocative aspect of it, and this is not entirely evident from a still photo. I promise you, it’s only a few dozen seconds.

The scene is about 19:30 into the episode. To recap: We’ve seen the odd assassination attempt intended for Robert Westhouse in the elevator; a Section D meeting; the Home Secretary telling Harry to tread lightly around Westhouse; Lucas and Beth interrogating Chapman, the other survivor of the attempt; Lucas and Beth tossing the penthouse of the hotel where Westhouse was staying; a chase scene in which Lucas attempts to apprehend the assassin, who is revealed as an agent of the Nigerian government; Lucas and Harry traveling to Westhouse’s “pile” to ask him what could be going on; and then the setup scene for this one: after Harry drops Lucas off, Lucas gets a call from Vaughn, who asks him whether he’s opened the suitcase. Lucas threatens Vaughn, and then hangs up (“rings off,” giggle, giggle). We see Harry discovering Westhouse’s Russian connections and Ruth’s discovery that the assassins must have stayed in the hotel, which Beth overhears. Then our scene.

It opens with a shot over London in the hazy morning, though no caption appears to tell us where the scene takes place. It’s a bedroom with some standard blinds that looks a lot like a hotel room, frankly, except that it also has a filing cabinet in it with something on top of it — probably, one concludes in retrospect, Lucas’s laptop. Lucas is seated in a leather chair in the corner and leans forward over the bed to open the suitcase. A towel lies next to the suitcase and the bedcovers are a bit rumpled, so perhaps this is Lucas’s flat. We see the contents of the suitcase through Lucas’s gaze. He pushes aside a UK passport, perhaps because he already knows whose it is, and looks at the photos underneath. We see a picture of a much younger Lucas (John, we presume), wearing a casual men’s short-sleeved shirt and squinting into the sun toward the photographer, then a photo we can’t see, then a picture of John with Vaughn in front of a blue tiled background — both men are wearing evening wear, then a sliver of a photo of John and someone we can’t identify, and then finally, a photo the camera lets us glimpse for a longer moment: a woman we will shortly identify as Maya (Laila Rouass), wearing a short denim jacket over what looks like a low-collared textured dress and standing in front of a leafy green background with a bottle (presumably of beer) in her hand.

The function of this scene is to give us the factual and emotional information that gets us to the next one. As the scene starts, we do not know who Maya is and have no idea of the role that she played in John’s life. We also need a path or a transition to the subsequent scene, in which John awaits Maya at her job. Season 8 was sort of disastrous in terms of its decision to tell us things that it should have shown us; this is a great scene in that it shows us a great deal without telling us anything. We have no idea what is really going on behind Lucas’s reaction to this photo, but Armitage’s performance suggests that it is something momentous. It hints rather than saying, and says all the more for not speaking.

Referencing the video above, at 0:05 Lucas is taken aback by the photo of Maya, and we several blinks of the eyelids as he pulls it out to look at more closely. There are at least four subtly different facial expressions here. Pain or weariness
Pullback from that expression, as if it’s too much to handle

Pullback from that emotion, with a slight opening of the mouth as if to breathe to cushion the emotion.

Key here: the facial expressions signal him not only experiencing these emotions, but struggling with them or retreating from them. The eyelid blinks thus don’t function here to signal the expression of emotion, but the holding back of it. I wish I could write this in 28 point bold type: this is a signature characteristic of the Armitage eye blinks — they tell us not that the Armitage character is telling us something, but rather that he’s trying very hard NOT to tell us something — hiding it or restraining something that wants to get out but with which the character is uncomfortable. Not: “I’m upset,” but rather, “I’m afraid to admit to myself that I’m upset.” They draw us in as viewers to see what’s being hidden rather than calling attention (in this case, via blinking) to the performance aspects of what’s happening here. In other words, the blinks come from the inside emotion, rather than signaling or giving rise to it, and they indicate a second metalayer: not only the emotion itself, but the character’s reaction to feeling it in the first place.

Then we look back at the photo. At 0:15 the camera returns to Lucas’s face and we get six seconds to see his reaction to it.

Base level, examination: he’s pulled back from the pain and is trying to look dispassionately at the photo despite his feelings. Face mostly closed off, itself an indicator of internal struggle. His left cheekbone almost looks like a storm cloud.

Eyes narrow, left corner of mouth pulls down. Some pain or sadness.

Transition. Corner of mouth pulling slightly up out of pain position.

Happy memory. Very slight pull of left corner of mouth into sad smile.

Mouth comes back in to center of face; retreat from happy memory back into base position with slight tinge of pain. Note growing tension at the bridge of the nose all through this sequence.

At 0:21, we go to a shot of a computer graphic; implication is that Lucas has pulled out his laptop and is trying to locate the person in the photo, whose name, we learn as Lucas types it into the graphic, is Maya Lahan. At 0:23, this is confirmed, as we see Lucas staring with concentration at his laptop screen as he types. Lucas, intent on his task.

The camera moves back to the computer graphic, which we see flashing to a page that identifies the woman in the photo. At 0:30 back to Lucas, where we have seven seconds to watch him before the camera cuts to a parking lot (which we only then find out, from the perspective of John’s gaze, is the health care facility where Maya is working). So keep in mind that at this point, we don’t really know the consequences of the processes that Lucas is working through while reading his laptop — only the content of the screen he is reading, and his apparent reaction to it in the wake of having opened up the suitcase, which is, as Armitage has noted a few times, a “Pandora’s box.” The “hands shot” that MillyMe and iz4blue love so much is the consequence of a great deal of expressional buildup before we see it — it is both the end of the feelings he’s been expressing and the transition to the next scene, in that the very end of it signals, I think, a giving in to the emotion that leads to a decision — the content of which we only learn in the next scene, but the emotional significance of which is effectively set up here without Lucas having to say any words at all.

In this scene, which prefigures his first meeting with her, the laptop computer represents the problems with which Lucas is wrestling as a consequence of having opened the suitcase: both the past and Maya. And though Lucas has no lines, through the motions of the hand towards the screen, Armitage is indicating the extreme fragility of Lucas’s feelings about reaching out to encounter both those things — one might call them the dual, conflicting gifts of Pandora’s box. Let’s look.

At 0:30, he pulls back from his intense focus on the screen with his head — again trying to pull out of engagement with what he’s seeing. Several moments here:

Pulling back from the intentness on the screen in reaction to what he sees.

Head back just a little further, slight contraction of the mouth and opening of the lips

Head at its furthest point back in response to what he’s seeing, chest now expanding to breathe in, mouth opening to facilitate calming breath, shoulders moving back to stabilize and calm upper body and allow hands to move toward screen. All this is subtle but noticeable as the rearing back of the head in shock, but in the compressed gestural repertoire that Armitage has developed for Lucas.

At 0:31, we see the hands moving to hold onto the laptop screen — for stability against the disequilibrium set in motion by the reaction and the pullback. Touching the screen, however lightly, is simultaneously a way of touching, concretely holding onto, the past that he’s now seeing in a high resolution photo of Maya, who is curiously described as THREAT POTENTIAL: NONE. This is true for British national security, and yet the threat she poses to the life of “Lucas North,” who has been revealed as much more of a fiction that we originally realized, is immediately evident in the move to hold the screen. Yet the position of the hands suggests that despite the tension in them, he’s afraid to hold onto the past, and Maya, too tightly, afraid to grab onto it to stabilize his sudden disequilibrium at seeing the photo. The simultaneous tension of the hands and their restraint from a firm hold  — the impulse to touch, and the simultaneous hesitance to do so — seem to signal that he is debating some issue in his mind.

Moving to hold screen as he closes eyes to brace against the contact.

Opens eyes as he decides to grasp it, right hand opening as well to surround the screen.

Just as he could grasp it, the hands hold back. Note in particular the continued holding back of the left index finger, almost a refusal to point at, underline, touch, the past.

There’s an interesting parallel for me here in terms of a frequent gesture of indecision, i.e., the loose holding of fingers above something, as above a keyboard, before deciding to finally commit to grasping it, to doing something, or a sort of tapping of the fingers as one runs through the options in one’s head. Given the emotion on his face, we could almost envision seeing Armitage’s fingers shaking here — which would be too much if we saw it explicitly, but the reluctance of his motion suggests the same thing without exaggeration. This is the further refinement of the raw emotion and shaking voice that we saw at the end of 9.1 during Lucas’s first encounter with Vaughn. At 0:33, he’s swallowed deeply (Armitage gestural repertoire for fear or emotional insecurity), and at the resolution of the swallow, as he breathes in his fingers have moved more completely toward gently holding the computer screen, but just as this happens, we see him pulling back his thumbs as if to open up his hands even more. Now we’re progressing toward 0:37, which is the end of this sequence, and we see these repeated blinks that signal the holding back of something that’s trying to get out.

Fingers holding more closely, but thumbs now opening in a gesture away from the palms — hinting again at indecision, puzzlement.

Head moves down lightly in concentration and lips closing, even as thumbs seem to extend slightly more widely. “Should I?” He seems to ask.

At the end of the sequence — and it’s very slight — the left and right fingers, including the left index, are clearly holding the back of the keyboard, and the thumbs have relaxed from their extreme open position — the pinnacle of the question he’s asking himself at this point about what to do — as if he’s given in.

The motion of Lucas’s and thumbs toward a tentative contact with the screen suggests that he’s decided that he will be holding on to the past and Maya, however tenuously. It’s a surrender as much as a decision, I think, a state of affairs signaled effectively in the next scene when John tells Maya, in response to her order to leave her alone, that he can’t. He may not be able to grasp it fully and confidently, but he also can’t let go, just as he can’t stop the musing progress of his fingers over the back of the laptop.

In its current connotations, “to open Pandora’s box” usually means to unleash something irretrievable and evil on the world — to expose the world to a force that it will never be able to put back in the box. But in its first telling, Pandora’s box, as Hesiod told the tale in his Works and Days, set loose upon humanity not only a whirlwind full of all imaginable evil (“ills and hard toil and heavy sickness which bring the Fates upon men”), but gave men something else, after these things escape. We are told by the poet: “Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar.” In Spooks 9.2, the irretrievable evil (something about which we as yet know nothing, except that it was so bad that it meant that John could never return to Maya) was apparently unleashed through the return of Vaughn — at least as it seems so far. If this is a typical Greek story of the Fates that the scriptwriters are bringing to us, the virtue  — or the hubris — of the hero will also play a role in determining its outcome. But clinging to the rim of the suitcase is the picture of Maya, and it is to this that Lucas both decides to cling and surrenders in this scene.

Hope is inter alia a feeling that it might be possible to retrieve something that’s been irretrievably lost — a conviction that Lucas tells Connie James, and us, in 7.8 that he doesn’t have (“what’s lost can never be found”). The palpable emotion, the feeling that makes these brief gestures of the hand so moving, is thus the result of the struggle over Lucas’s decision, however desperate, to grasp at hope — as he gingerly accedes to an awareness that the need to touch the past with all its evil is also a surrender.

~ by Servetus on October 1, 2010.

28 Responses to “Detailed acting moment: or, the hands, for MillyMe [Spooks 9.2 spoilers!]”

  1. Haven’t read your post yet, but I also made caps of that scene. This is what makes me love Richard Armitage’s acting, and not one word said. Fantastic.

    I also wrote a piece on this, and I think I’ll post it before reading yours to see how similar or dissimilar they may be. That always fascinates me.


  2. You understood completely what I meant by the hands and your analysis of their role in expressing Lucas’ trepidation and utlimately hope in renewing his acquaintance with the past in the form of Maya is detailed and so beautiful. Thank you.


    • It’s such a pleasure to write for you, MillyMe, you are such an appreciative audience. 🙂

      I love it that “our man” can do so much with so little. It makes every scene he’s in such a pleasure to watch.


  3. I’m speechless, thank you for all those caps. Once he made his decision he appears not to feel any doubt in his interaction or approach of Maya though.


    • Yes, I think that’s right. He’s decided that he can’t, or won’t, stop himself. What’s interesting about this is that it’s consistent with S8 Lucas — but what we found implausible last season we find convincing here.


  4. This is amazing – I can’t watch the video at the moment coz I am on the road but will do so later.


  5. Is it normal to feel jealous of a lap top? The way he is holding it, looking at it…I have never wanted to be an inanimate object before. I am a bit envious of that black leather jacket he wears, and that beat up brief case, I would love to be that brief case, just for one day to be stuffed with all those top secret scrips and have those lovely hands carry me around all day.

    This scene was one of my favs in this episosde, thank you for explaining why it was so powerful.


    • Wow, that is extreme. I’d like to sit on Lucas’s lap. I don’t think I’d want to be his laptop. His jacket maybe. So I could give him secret hugs 🙂


      • Actually I initially fixated on those hindshots: that well-fitted jacket with buckle as focal point matched with well fitted jeans.
        There is another posture that keeps me pondering. When he is standing by the window in the hospital and Maya is about to leave. His arms are not naturally beside his body. I read hesitation and determination at the same time. I’ve seen him do it before and wondered whether the jacket was at fault. Don’t think that’s it though.


        • Word. That is a really interesting moment. It’s also interesting because in that scene there are moments where he still appears to “be” Lucas — expressions that are more typical of Lucas than what John ends up being at the end of the scene. And that very strange posture is hard to fit into the picture. Hmmm.


      • Was going for cute and clever, but landed in creapy and werid territory instead. Cool.


        • I was just thinking of all the abuse I subject my laptop to when I wrote that. Cookie crumbs, unpleasant bumps …


  6. Watching the scene I was thinking about the different techniques actors use, and how different the scene would have to be played on stage. Here on film thanks to Richard Armitage we’re sharing Lucas/John’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, all conveyed by small physical and facial gestures. I know this will seem strange, but I feel often when I’m watching these “silent” scenes that I’m Lucas, feeling deeply his emotional turmoil.


    • @Musa: not strange at all. In that gesture he was reaching for her, with desire and tredipitation. A pure emotional moment.


  7. Ohhh I loved the hands in this scene too. Perfect, they portrayed so much. It seems that deep down Lucas is a lover not a fighter! Maybe..


  8. Feeling that I’m Lucas = yes. Me too. Particularly in S9.


  9. […] Posts Detailed acting moment: or, the hands, for MillyMe [Spooks 9.2 spoilers! pw=spooks9]More thumbsDigiti pollices ArmitageiOn the ill-fitting suits: or Armitage resartus, part 1On the […]


  10. […] at heart, a lover and not a fighter? Is this what drives him, more than his job? (Incidentally, see Me+Richard for a discussion of the scene depicted […]


  11. […] to me to be a key principle of Armitage’s acting style. I’ve noted in particular that we almost never see Lucas North’s actual emotions, but only Lucas struggling to react to, retr…. Moreover, opting for reaction vs. action when one can also potentially underlies Armitage’s […]


  12. […] with his hands. About a year ago, now, I detailed a very poignant example from Spooks 9.2, when Lucas / John is trying to find Maya by googling — a moment that may be unsurpassed in Armitage’s oeuvre thus far. I think what’s […]


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  14. […] […]


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