How can one face say all that?, part 2

It’s been suggested to me a few times that Mr. Armitage’s face is attractive because of its symmetry. Actually, I don’t think his face is all that symmetrical (most people’s aren’t), and I think that’s part of what draws our eyes to it. This photo may help you to decide for yourself. I think that at times Armitage has two really distinct halves of his face, and because (if you watch him in scenes where his face is changing emotion, you’ll see that) emotion tends to move across his face from left to right. The effect of this tendency can be enhanced by lighting him from the side, so that one impression is stronger while the other remains in shadow.

John Porter (Richard Armitage), about to resign from the regiment, in Strike Back 1.1. Source:

This asymmetry enhances Mr. Armitage’s capacity to exploit microexpressions, I think: as emotions move quickly across his face we see slightly more complexity because he’s actually saying different things in different places. Here’s the scene in question, from Strike Back 1.1.

This cap comes around 0:31 above. And what I’m pointing out in the cap below really are microexpressions, because we see them at most for a fleeting instant, and we have to watch the clip in slomo to see some of this consciously at all. The asymmetry of his face is thus exploited in conjunction with an unconscious effect on us as viewers.

The same photo, slightly retouched so we can see what’s happened on the left side of his face more clearly.

It’s a bit like his emotions are a storm passing across his face from left to right. Over time, the muscles on the left side of his face have actually taken a slightly different form, which also makes the tendency to react this way more obvious. A lot of additional stuff about Porter’s mood becomes clear from the position in the clip, particularly the transition in head positions as Porter interacts with his commander, who’s seated below him, and the weirdness of his apparent physical discomfort in the dress uniform, which, in combination with his rigid posture (aside from his head position) makes him seem simultaneously strong and weak in this scene. But in itself the face says everything: the honorable man dishonored, the strong man weakened, the energetic man accepting of his fate, the man who’s always relied on his body and his judgment conceding that both were wrong and not asking questions — the tension that Armitage builds for Porter here between humility and humiliation. It’s a facial expression that makes clear exactly the contradictions that Armitage sought to build into the character, and it’s so ambivalent at times that it’s transfixing: we don’t know where to look, or with which John Porter exactly to sympathize, but we can’t help, as viewers, being drawn into the scene along with Armitage to try to resolve the contradictions.

~ by Servetus on August 11, 2011.

14 Responses to “How can one face say all that?, part 2”

  1. I read your analysis–masterfully done, as always–and couldn’t help but think of the new leads on SB and how unlikely we are to get anything approaching this level of detail and nuance in their performances. *sigh*
    I am going to miss you, John Porter.

    My face is definitely asymmetrical; I think such things make a person more interesting-looking. Perfection is actually a bit boring.


  2. Ooer, feel a contrary itch coming on but can’t scratch it now. Will return later with my obligatory obstinancy. 😉


  3. Your new arrow-analysis (or label-analysis?) series is so didatic, it’s helping me to better realize and appreciate the subleties of Mr. A’s performances.


  4. Brilliant analysis, Servetus. Each point, each look, each movement in the face of RA in this scene confirms all the contradictory emotions running through John Porter in this situation. How connected RA is to the characters problems and discomfort.


  5. Very interesting! I would like to see the scene in slow motion. (Not sure how to manage this — will have to tinker around).
    I do agree his face is asymmetrical which does make it even more fascinating to regard. I would never have noticed how his expressions move the same direction across his face without your pointing it out! Very cool BTW.
    It makes me wonder, since I have never examined anyone so closely before — would anyone else be as interesting if we looked at them in such detail? (For example some other talented, good looking actor — like I don’t know…Sean Bean, Gerard Butler, Ioan Gruffudd?)
    I don’t mean to be argumentative or disbelieving or maybe I am committing heresy here… but I am very curious. I do know RA is special, but are we reading too much into his performance or not? …. Just sayin’! *hiding behind the couch now*!


    • I think that’s an important question, Phylly3. To some extent I think that the subtlety of Armitage’s facial expressions call us to look more closely at him; however, I don’t discount the possibility that he simply is doing something that every actor does. I, however, am not addicted to other actors, so the comparisons are not especially interesting to me. I think a comparative project is definitely in order — but I’m not going to be the one who does it 🙂


  6. I think the lack of (micro) expressions is most directly perceived. There are several actors who change the characters (or emotions), but do not change the face giving the impression that they are always playing the same characters (or emotions). Perhaps this ability is one of the criteria that separates a good, a medium and bad actor.


  7. Oh, Mr. Porter, I love you so much!

    That whole scene was so intense, I rewatched it yesterday. The total humiliation of Porter when he has to take off his beret, considering what it costs to gain such a thing (many men have ruined their military career by injuries while even only training for SAS selection).

    Angie, coudn’t we have another chaRActerforce, this time commanded by Lucas, to rescue Porter? 🙂


  8. Possible spoiler ? In last week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly there was an ad on the inside front cover fro SB 2 one of the guys pic looked so much like Armitage I went to the website to see if he is still in it. It doesn’t look like it. He isn’t listed as a princple “star.” Have you all had this conversation? I am behind the times.


    • There was a major spoiler about ten days ago, besides the accumulating information that he was not seen at any of the filming sites except once, and the obvious time conflict. I haven’t been talking about it for spoilers reasons, but I did read the spoiler myself.


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