Armitage “characters who go nowhere” [spoilers for previous and future roles]
The exceedingly apt quotation above stems from Frenz. So, spoilers for a lot of stuff, really.
Gratuitous eye candy from Project Magazine — but I hope he got to keep the leather jacket. It really suits him. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
Again from the Project Magazine interview, here’s Richard Armitage quoted as responding to a question about whether it’s annoying to be killed off, as he was in Spooks:
“I’d kind of decided that it was time to go [from Spooks], so I told them, ‘do what you will’. Which is exactly what they did. There’s a satisfaction in playing a bad guy. You know they’ve got to get it, but the fun part is seeing how that happens. I’ve been shot in the head and jumped off a building, and I love my death in Captain America.”
We assume that the shot to the head occurs in Strike Back, and the jumping off the building we know occurs in Spooks 9.8. Armitage characters have also chewed on a cyanide capsule, been shot in the chest, shot in the abdomen, and speared through the torso. Dying can be a great opportunity, of course, to show off your acting chops. It’s also, one imagines, really difficult, as one sees so many unconvincing screen deaths. How well does Armitage do it? And what, if anything, do these clips suggest about how he will perform the upcoming deaths in Strike Back and The Hobbit?
[Note: I probably won’t get to see Strike Back until the UK broadcast. But I have read the spoiler.]
Now, many of his characters have survived, but recently we’ve witnessed a lot of deaths. As far as I know, an Armitage character dies in five video productions that we’ve seen so far (and presumably, also, in Strike Back). I am not considering potential deaths in voice work. Here’s a look back at those deaths, in Ultimate Force, In Divine Proportion, Robin Hood, and Spooks. I don’t have a clip of Heinz Kruger’s death scene in Captain America, nor any information on Strike Back: Project Dawn.
I also want to admit that my first two plot summaries are lame because I have only seen the death scenes in these productions; I haven’t watched the entire shows. Have to save some new material for the next year, right?
For each death I’ve given the script a grade and Armitage a grade, with an explanation after the clip.
First, Ultimate Force. Armitage’s first screen death in 2003, pre-North & South, so no one knew who he was. Captain Ian Macalwain, played by Armitage, has always stuck out like a sore thumb in Red Troop for his insistence on adherence to protocol, covering his own *ss, and following procedures and the technical chain of command, preferences that quickly place him at odds with Henno Garvie, Red Troop’s leader but an NCO. Ian falls for Laurie Twamley, the unhappy wife of SAS Red Troop member Pete Twamley, Henno’s best friend, who’s developed PTSD as a result of events on a mission to Bosnia. Mrs. Twamley confides some of Pete’s more disturbing behaviors to Ian, who wants to rescue her from what he sees as a dangerous situation, but won’t take “no” for an answer when Laurie tells him their romantic interlude was a mistake. When Henno gets wind of their secret liaison at a hotel while Red Troop is on assignment, he decides to take matters into his own hands — with the tacit consent of Red Troop, none of whom like or respect Macalwain.
Grade for script: C. Like everything that involves Chris Ryan, Ultimate Force seemed to involve improbability after improbability, and series 2 involved a number of plots that strained credibility, except, perhaps, if you were a macho guy engaged in seriously violent wish fulfillment. The point of killing Macalwain seems to have been to show in yet one more way the extent of Henno’s twisted inhumanity, despite his gifts as a soldier. It’s hard for me to credit that such a successful soldier could be such a destroyed soul, and because Henno has so few redeeming qualities, it’s even harder to accept his flaws. Most of this series was a cartoon for me.
Grade for death: B. We really don’t get to see much acting here — Henno simply guns Ian down. Effective falling, but scream perhaps just a little too loud? Macalwain in the cooler at the end is, dare I say it: chilling? I’d be amused by his angelic look if I weren’t so disgusted.
Second, In Divine Proportion, the first episode in series 4 of The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, which circle around characters created in a series of novels by Elizabeth George. This was Armitage’s first post-North & South appearance, so many fans would have seen this, and the series it was in was broadcast in the U.S., where it had a wide following as well. The main reason I haven’t watched this piece all the way through has nothing to do with Armitage — I was a huge George fan in the 1990s while in graduate school but her novels after about 2000 or so started to annoy me, and my ongoing frustration with her makes me less than eager to watch this material. At any rate, Philip Turner is a member of the local gentry run up against hard times, a man who’s had to sell his heritage to pay off his gambling debts. When a woman is murdered in his home, he comes under suspicion for having had an affair with her. In the course of the show, the protagonists, Inspector Lynley and DS Havers, uncover a history in which it turns out that the murder has been committed to cover up evidence of a much older murder in which Turner was implicated. The murderer of both the local woman and the earlier victim then shoots Turner in a dramatic closing scene that’s really about Havers’ capacity to overcome a previous work trauma. I’ve clipped the whole scene because the camera moves frequently to Armitage to show his reaction to statements by other characters.
Grade for script: A. What I’ve seen of this show suggests that it’s quite well written, and it doesn’t ask of the character in this case more bombast than one can take as a viewer.
Grade for death: A. As I said, the scene is really about whether Havers can take being in a stressful work situation again, and not so much about the effectiveness of Turner’s death, which is a collateral point to everything in the drama. Here we hear a clear signal from the Armitage distress register, which is the movement of his voice into the mid to upper ranges of his baritone register, with a corresponding growth in resonance that calls attention both to the quality of the voice and to the emotion felt by the character. We also see an effective portrayal, in the calm but forceful body language, of the self-contradiction of the character that Armitage exploits here: the dissolute son of the upper classes who finally finds it in himself to do something moral.
Third, Robin Hood. In the apocalyptic third season, Robin Hood, Guy of Gisborne, their newly-revealed mutual half brother, Archer, Isabella, and the Sheriff are all contending in various constellations for control of Nottingham. In a highly choreographed, quite dance-like fight sequence near the end of the final episode, both Robin and Guy are fatally wounded. Guy has just time to make his amends with Robin and declare his emancipation before he gives up the ghost. Armitage already had a rapidly expanding fan base by this point; 2.2 million viewers in the UK saw the final episode, which was well down from the show’s earlier ratings.
Grade for script: D. It’s hard for me to say anything positive at all about the RH series 3 scripts, except that they gave Guy a lot of screen time. The writers gave Guy the most stereotypical, unbelievable lines possible for a stock villain who has to show that he’s remorseful, so much so that you wonder how Armitage gets all this stuff over his lips without bursting into giggles. This reviewer thought Armitage could have performed this death effectively without words, and if no better words were available than the ones he was given, I have to agree. As it was, the script verged occasionally over into the realm of inappropriately Christlike, and it didn’t help that Armitage appeared to be channeling Robert Powell.
Grade for death: B+. Although in the end I was quite moved, it was probably because of my identification with and love of this particular character. This death started out poorly for me, with a scream that I again found too loud (was this a primal scream of annoyance with this script? one wonders) and a falling to the knees that the camera milked for every second it was worth, i.e., more than a few fractions of a second too long. This is one of those situations where the actor is unavoidably hampered by the script. That said, by the end of the scene, I think his understatement, his quiet voice, and then his limp departure with eyes starltlingly open are actually quite moving.
Fourth, the flashback to Lucas North’s attempted suicide in Russian prison in Spooks 8.4. By this point, Armitage has a clear audience dedicated to him that makes up a chunk of the people watching the show. Series 8, broadcast in 2009, started promisingly with an audience of roughly 6 million viewers and a 25 percent share in the UK, both of which dwindled rapidly toward the series end, I’d guess due to the increasingly incomprehensible scripts. Obviously, Lucas doesn’t die in this scene, but I include this because it’s an attempt at a death and a really convincing one, I find. After a scene in which Lucas must invite his former interrogator / torturer Oleg Darshavin (Emil Hostina) into his apartment in order to try to extract information from him about an impending terrorist attack, Lucas is confronted by memories of a moment at which, tortured beyond all tolerance by his Russian captors, he attempted to hang himself on some spare piece of ducting from the ceiling, only to be rescued by Oleg.
Trigger alert: suicide, hanging, torture.
Grade for script: A+, not only because he doesn’t say anything with his mouth, but everything with his eyes (Armitage himself noted that the script direction was extremely curt), but also because it’s the absolutely most believable death direction in all of the scenes discussed in this post in terms of context in the story narrative for the character, and in terms of the way that the flashback is embedded into the episode, so that we see at what cost Lucas interacts with Oleg in order to obtain the information about the terrorist attack.
Grade for death: A+ as well. It’s still hard for me to watch this episode because I know this scene is coming. It’s so utterly convincing. When I overcome my reluctance to watch the episode, I’ll write a longer analysis with discussion of microexpressions, but everything about the body language from the position of the shoulders and the shaking of the jaw to the alternately wild and dead expressions in the eyes is spot on. This scene sends shivers down my spine on the rare occasions when I can force myself to watch it.
Fifth, John Bateman’s death scene in Spooks 9.8. Pushed beyond all reason by the death of his lover, Maya, as they attempt to escape from the UK, John Bateman (he as was Lucas North) lures Harry onto the top of a London building, threatens to kill him, and then, when Harry challenges him to get it over with, apparently jumps off the building.
Grade for script: B-/C+. As I believe my episode by episode reviews show, I actually wasn’t as completely bothered by the Spooks 9 scripts as the average Armitage fan appears to have been — two or three episodes I found excellent, actually — but I wonder again why (as we saw in the death sequence for Guy in Robin Hood) why it is that writers who are capable of perfectly nuanced moral positions and vocabularies suddenly turn to big, vague, abstract nouns when they start writing death scenes. Does anyone of Lucas / John’s intellect really say things like, “I was bad,” or “he gave me a chance to mean something / do something”? Did John really lose 25 IQ points in this scene, as the script implies? I say more about this script in my original episode review, but I find this scene hugely frustrating to watch even though I wasn’t per se an enemy of the Bateman story line.
Grade for death: A-/B+. This is also a scene that’s going to get an extensive chew-through one of these days, but I find that Armitage is really struggling with the script here, and also with the control and presentation of the typical distress signals in his repertoire. That the scene doesn’t read as completely overwrought is surely due only to his self-control, but he seems to be maintaining it only tenuously in some points, with his voice not completely under control — something out of character for Armitage the actor — at all points in the scene.
And then there’s the death that Armitage loved: Heinz Kruger in Captain America. After Kruger blows up Dr. Erskine’s lab in order to destroy the Super Soldier program, he attempts to escape, chased by Captain America, who destroys his submarine and halls him back up on land for questioning. Kruger, seeing there’s no escape, bites down a cyanide capsule, yells, “Hail Hydra!” and dies.
Grade for script: A. Typical over the top cartoon style, but completely effective within that context. The villain is captured, explains his plan / contributes his bit to the plot, and is swept off the screen. No fat in this scene — economical and effective. Fantastic.
Grade for death: A. This is the highest energy death we’ve scene from Armitage yet. I can see why he likes it. We’re ready for histrionics but the whole event is delivered with such celerity that we’re almost surprised when Kruger foams at the mouth and his head sinks bank. Wait? Did he just kill himself? My heart is still pounding.
Unbaked summary: One thing that’s interesting about many of these deaths is the way they are scripted as putting an end to obsessions or craziness or unreasonable determination of some kind. As would any actor, Armitage does better with a better script. We can also say that with exceptions, the deaths tend to be under- rather than over-played — he’s definitely not using the fact that he has the audience’s attention to draw out our patience — he stays faithful to the role and gets the character dispatched with the proper tempo and mood. When he’s dying effectively, Armitage’s deaths spotlight our awareness of the contradictions he’s built into the characters he’s playing.
In other words: he dies well. It seems a bit superstitious of me to want to correct that to: Armitage performs death well. The more scholarly language doesn’t seem to have the same impact as the inaccurate but more stark generalization.
Happy Birthday month Richard Armitage! In honor of this event, consider donating your time, energy, and thoughts / prayers to an effort that’s meaningful to you. If you need a suggestion, here’s a link to Mr. Armitage’s recommended charities at JustGiving, as well as a link to means of generating a charity contribution on his behalf at RichardArmitageOnline.com, and a link to Act!onAid, a child sponsorship organization for which he recorded a voiceover in December 2010. Donate to Christchurch Earthquake Appeal here.