Richard Armitage’s performance of John Standring: Strongest where he is weakest

I’m still, on some level, unconsoled. And the world keeps on moving and so must I. Writing the handwritten and virtual thankyous (I’m not done yet) has helped, as has other writing. I meet my classes again tomorrow. I am really lucky with my employer and profession / flexible schedule — most people can’t take this much time away, even for a parent.

What everyone says: take care of yourself. I’ve got two initial goals in that regard for the next few weeks. First, for mourning and getting myself accustomed to mom’s absence, I’m going to say the mourner’s prayer for mom every day for eleven months, in a minyan when possible. (The latter is going to be harder, as it’s hard to find a daily minyan that counts women — my synagogue doesn’t, for instance — but it must be workoutable.) Second, for comfort and creativity: starting to write about Richard Armitage here again every day or as close to that as I can. Lean on the people around me who love the same things as I do. (I’ll probably be writing about grief and my impressions of what’s happened IRL a fair amount as well. Those posts will be labeled OT. I’ll try not to overwhelm you.)

Guylty (via KatharineD) helped me skillfully onto the obvious bridge to this topic with her post on the caress as gesture of reassurance in Richard Armitage’s oeuvre. She managed to get three of my top Armitage reassurance moments in there — Mr. Thornton with Margaret, John Porter with Katie Dartmouth, and Guy of Gisborne with Meg. Though I have to get ready for class tomorrow, I wanted to add to those three moments, which I thought about a lot the last ten days or so, a few more, these specifically from Sparkhouse.

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SH1_012John Standring (Richard Armitage) dresses Carol Boulton’s burns in episode 1 of Sparkhouse. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

*** SH2_092John Standring (Richard Armitage) helps Mr. Boulton (Alun Armstrong) into the house after a tussle with Carol (Sarah Smart), in episode 2 of Sparkhouse. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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SH3_144John Standring (Richard Armitage) tells Carol (Sarah) not to be afraid to be honest with him, in episode 3 of Sparkhouse. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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SH3_192John Standring (Richard Armitage) and Lisa (Holliday Grainger) help Carol (Sarah Smart) down from the ruin on the moor, in episode 3 of Sparkhouse. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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I can’t write a long essay on this at the moment (see: “classes begin again tomorrow,” above, as well as “writing every day as far as I can”), but if were to do so, it would be a central premise that one reason that Armitage’s performance of comfort and reassurance works so well in Sparkhouse (and it could be read as a subtle permutation of gender trouble, to some extent) is that it comes, not from an obvious place of strength, but from a clear place of vulnerability.

Note that it’s not that Standring isn’t strong, or can’t be strong. He’s competent at work, capable of taking charge, and physically strong, and though he’s hardly belligerent, even capable of defending with force what he perceives as his territory (for example, in his argument with Andrew). But one thing I love about Armitage’s performance here is that he could have left Standring’s flaws at the very obvious conclusion of characterizing him as a social incompetent, an awkward, unloved young man who spends too much time with his granddad and livestock, and doesn’t recognize that when Sarah gets in the car with him in episode 1 or (somewhat less so) suggests that they get married at the end of episode 2, he’s being used. In other words, Armitage could just have let us feel sorry for Standring and that might have been sufficient for a story in which he’s the minor character.

But what Armitage gets out of the script in every gesture, every movement of his eyes of episodes 2 and 3, particularly, is that Standring, as much as he’s damaged, he is even more than that vulnerable. And his relational incompetence is not naiveté (or opportunism) so much as it is a willingly constituted and maintained vulnerability against the things he has realized (for instance, that Carol doesn’t really love him) which ends in heartbreaking honesty and openness. Just after Standring’s been damaged by the news that Andrew is allegedly Lisa’s father, a day of great joy for him assaulted by memories of the past, it’s Armitage’s gesture of caring that speaks from the depth of pain in Standring’s eyes — not from his happiness, but from his weakness — that has becoming an enduring moment of the series for many viewers. Standring yells — at Andrew, at Andrew’s father, and then at Carol, not out of power, but out of weakness, so that his capacity to reach out for love, to say, I am strong, and do not be afraid of me, comes from that place where he concedes his incapacity to control what’s happened in the past, to love not because but despite.

Armitage’s gestures and eyes make Standring strongest where he is weakest — and that vulnerability makes his comfort even more intense for us, because as viewers we realize the visceral, wounded, emotional place from which it has to come.

~ by Servetus on September 9, 2013.

33 Responses to “Richard Armitage’s performance of John Standring: Strongest where he is weakest”

  1. I haven’t really seen much of this particular show since all there is available here is on You Tube but I agree with most of what you have said. It is actually painful to watch. Excellent acting. He knows what he is stepping into I feel but yet he still does it. I suppose if I were watching this without knowing Richard at all I might feel more sympathy for the two main characters as I’m sure we are meant to and perhaps if I saw all of the program in one piece I might feel more. Instead I feel more for John really and the vulnerability he shows and how painful it all must be.

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  2. Help – please remove this comment. I didn’t mean to upload the videos, just the link.

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  3. I think that most of what he does is because he truly loves Carol, even though he knows that she doesn’t love him. But she needs him and Lisa needs him, and on some level that’s enough for him–then. He gave up so much for her, and it truly breaks my heart to see how incredibly she took advantage of his feelings for her. And Richard does such a mesmerizing job of showing all of that.

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  4. Wow, this. [and SPOILERS]

    John Standring is one of those characters I hadn’t initially put too much thought into when I first saw Sparkhouse. This was mostly due to the fact that I wasn’t much impressed with the storyline (although borrowed and gender swapped from a favorite) or it’s execution. But I had still enjoyed the character and was affected, just not sure completely why. Later, Richard’s sweet, moving and vulnerable character began to sink in a bit.

    And I too never saw John as weak, and neither did I ever feel a type of pity. The reason for this, I think, is because I feel a man who can confront a woman like Carol, about a subject like that, and out of love, can only be seen as strong. To me, that was a big deal. A lesser man – either an amoral one who might have said nothing just to keep the peace or, worse, an immoral one who simply wishes to hold onto her for as long as possible regardless of her true feelings. Eventually, either he would lose respect for her, and himself, and/or no longer want to touch her, or she would soon stop allowing him to touch her, losing respect for him as well, and the relationship would soon disintegrate.

    And after another viewing or two, I took on a new fondness and appreciation for the show as well, for these reasons and small character insights.

    Um, and there is all sorts of lovely fan fiction that has come to be created as a result of this character as well. 😉

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  5. I have a fantasy that these two wounded people can find happiness together, though the extent of the physical and sexual abuse suffered by Carol might make this seem unlikely. Perhaps he can win her trust just by being the first person not to let her down (and demonstrating care in vulnerability, as Servetus wrote above)? I live in hope, because I actually quite liked Carol’s feisty character, and she is nothing if not practical. Then there is that last scene where she shrugs off Lisa and John as they help her out of the ruin, then strides defiantly ahead by herself…

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  6. I think there were several scenes that could have been taken out that would have improved the production. I would also have loved to seen more character development of John, in particular with his relationship with Carol. He’s made to look too vulnerable while Carol comes off as just nasty, when she’s just as vulnerable as him.

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  7. Exactly ,Servetus! I’m relieved because I never feel sorry for John,too.
    Sometimes I was upset by him..why he is so stubborn?..he knows that she doesn’t love him but then I was aware that he sees what I see..beautiful, strong, little wild girl. Hard not to be fascinated by her IMO ( gender trouble on my part? 😉 ) Standring is one of my favorite Richard’s creation.

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    • yeah, I don’t feel sorry for him … I think, oh, what you are about to do is going to end badly but I don’t feel sorry for him.

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  8. There must be something in the air because I was thinking about Standring just yesterday, first time in months. To me he was the ultimate comforter because unlike Lucas or Porter, it wasn’t part of his job description, nurturing comes naturally to him. In a place where such terrible things happen, John’s good nature, sometimes seen as a weakness, provides a little relief. Even to the sheep 😉

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  9. Wow, I finally saw this thanks to you and Perry. I didn’t realize I would be watching it until 2a.m. Oh well. Loved Richard’s performance as the strong, silent type.Extremely shy but willing to put himself out there, for Carol. I do worry for him. I want him to be happy with her. But I don’t see him as a pushover because he went to the bank with her and was very careful about their financial agreement, as well as his sexual expectations. He had his doubts, but he was brave enough to give the relationship a try. I also got a kick out of seeing “Meg” as the little sister.

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  10. I think the only strong person in this is John. i would say that Meg is also strong, and Carol could be at times, except for her weakness for emotional weakling Andrew. John has a great deal of integrity, lacking in most of the other characters, and has a heart and soul. Carol is right when she tells John he’s too good for her, because he is.

    Yes, she is using John when she first proposes marrying him, but I think part of the reason she does, and she tells Andrew of all people, is that Carol knows John is the only person that can turn the farm around, and she also knows he will stand by her to save the farm, and to raise Meg. That to me is proof of how strong John is, strong where it counts.

    John is also one of my favorite of RA’s characters.

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    • I meant Lisa. I always think of Holliday as Meg these days 🙂 LOL

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    • I think marriages of this type are a lot more frequent than we realize (and were very frequent in the past). In a situation like that you want someone you know is strong.

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  11. I wasn’t prepared to the incredible feelings for John while watching Sparkhouse. I was totally conquered by RA’s portraying of JS. I’d say he is the only positive character in Sparkhouse among egoistic or highly damaged ones. I deeply despise Andrew and can’t understand how Carol could love him after all he did (no, it isn’t really true. I can understand, I perfectly know how we can love men that hurt us). Andrew is the weak one, the little boy that wants everything but has no courage to get it. I can forgive Carol because of her horrible story but I’ll never forgive Andrew for letting her down. He’s a petulant little child that, realizing he had been wrong choose to take off his life instead of facing reality, grow his child, being a decent adult man. Exactly the opposite of John. Who knows what the reality is, accept it, takes the burden to help the woman he loves so much and her daughter even if he won’t ever be loved that much.
    Thanks Servetus for your post, you pointed to a thing I hadn’t thought before and let me liking Standring even more. And thanks to all who commented. Very interesting thread. As always, sorry for my English 😉

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    • I think Andrew is the most weakly drawn character. We never get a sense of why he’s so weak.

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      • Totally agree. So you can’t quite understand Carol’s love for him. Well, I know love is blind, but if Andrew had some qualities we could feel more for them. This way I can’t fully participate to their drama.

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  12. John always loved Carol. He understood he was making a bargain and he was willing to accept her on her terms, hoping for a family with her and that things would work out eventually. He has the strength to ask Carol all the right questions, confront her with his doubts, walk away when he thinks it won’t work, insure that he is going to have a “real” marriage. Because of Richard Armitage’s performance as John, I never felt sorry for him. I believed in his quiet strength and that he was capable of getting most of what he wanted, because he had what Carol needed most -almost unconditional love for her, love for Lisa, steadfastness, good sense, reliability – everything she never got from her parents or Andrew.

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  13. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how giving away your weakness and vulnerability can actually appear as a sign of strength. Standring is an example of that – he has a weakness, his affection for Carol. And even though he knows her heart lies elsewhere, he (compulsively) shows her his love. The strength lies in the fact that he is prepared to accept the rejection rather than hide away and pine from the sideline. Only someone who is sure of his own feelings can display that sort of strength.
    Standring really is a lovely character, and RA played him so well, so convincing. The nuances of nervously fluttering eyelashes, bashfully tilted head, carefully placed hands were employed really well by him. He really took the opportunity to impress with this supporting role.

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    • He is totally one of my favorite of Richard’s performances–as a matter of fact, he made “Sparkhouse” for me. Even in a very supporting role, I’ve always thought he totally overshadows the characters of both Andrew (especially) and Carol. He and Holiday Grainger supplied the true strength of “Sparkhouse”–which was one of the reasons is was so nice to see them briefly paired in Robin Hood, season 3.

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  14. I still think this is one of Richard Armitage’s strongest performances, although I found Sparkhouse fairly gruelling to watch. (As it was meant to be). Am I alone in hoping to see him in a future role that does not involve too much glowering? Standring was gentle, compassionate, understanding and caring and he brought out all my “protective” instincts given Carol’s treatment of him.

    Peace to you, Servitus. Know that you have loads of people who care.

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  15. […] On the point about Armitage for reassurance that Guylty started and which I pursued yesterday via a brief examination of Armitage’s performance as John Standring: […]

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  16. I think the reason i liked John Standring so much was the combination of shy vulnerability and strength. The first time we see John, he is so shy he can’t even look Carol in the eye and he is understandably overwhelmed when she drags him off for a shag to spite Andrew. I saw John as one of those honest, decent people who assumes the best of everyone – he didn’t see Carol using him because he simply would not have done that himself. John does the right thing – not always the easy thing. He stays with his grandad when most young men might want more freedom, he stays at the farm even though Carol’s dad (forget his name) allows it to go to ruin and stops paying him. When Carol returns we see an older, wiser John, who has stuck around through thick and thin. He knows Carol only wants him for his money but he thinks she will keep her end of the bargain, which is that they will build a life together as husband and wife, as well as business partners. He quietly accepts Carol and Lisa’s casual put downs not because he is weak but because he is strong enough to know they are the damaged ones. When Andrew comes after him on the last morning we see a man who could swat Andrew like a fly but barely does enough to defend himself and certainly not enough to really hurt Andrew. I think all of the above shows strength – how much of it came from the script writers and how much was Armitage’s idea would be interesting to know although i suspect most of it was from the latter.

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    • Given the shortcomings of the script and most of the characterizations, I’d have to agree with you. Except for Richard, I found “Sparkhouse” very difficult to watch–I had to keep reminding myself that it was based on “Wuthering Heights” with a gender switch. Andrew’s histrionics and weakness and Carol’s almost immediate betrayal of John were not that reminiscent of Cathy and Heathcliff.

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  17. Richard really is wonderful as John Standring. His vulnerability and crippling shyness make you want to take care of him, just as the fact that he’s also strong in lots of ways, make you want to be taken care of by him as well.

    Carol gets our sympathy for the terrible things she’s had to endure in her life, and at the same time angers us, because she could get all the love and care she needs from John, but prefers Andrew, despite the fact that he’s proven himself weak and untrustworthy.

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  18. Thanks for all of these very thoughtful comments!

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  19. […] power through his abjection, his status through his subjection, his beauty through his ugliness. Like John Standring, Porter is strongest where he is weakest and most powerful in the places where he shows the […]

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  20. […] her belief that when she finds her father, he will fix everything that’s wrong in her life. Like John Standring, Meg turns out to be strongest where she is […]

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  21. […] Serv adds: and the “strengths at the weakest point” is something he builds into some of his most endearing characters. […]

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  22. […] The whole energy arc is stronger into Act Four, which is good, because I find myself thinking again that the beginning of this act kills all the tempo they’ve built up over several hours. Armitage’s Proctor is fiercer, he clings harder to Elizabeth, but when he lifts her, his arms shake, and the kiss takes place nearer to the ground. I also finally get the “my name” thing to come over to me convincingly. His voice is loud, and he’s still shouting, but the timbre is a little lowers, such that he can be heard more distinctly — this is definitely a strength out of weakness situation. […]

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