Early Richard Armitage scenes I like: Ian Macalwain in Ultimate Force 2.3

Ultimate Force (or as I think of it, Richard Armitage’s first Chris Ryan vanity project) is not on the whole a huge favorite of Armitage fans. Particularly for a group of people who enjoyed the likes of North & South, Vicar of Dibley, and The Impressionists and came to Armitage that way, there’s simply not enough dramatic interest, and the show is quite violent. I saw it early on, when the spectre of completism was still on my horizon, something that eventually evaporated (or maybe it’s just extreme delayed gratification, and I’m afraid of a day when there’s Armitage material I haven’t processed). Also, it was incredibly cheap to buy, and I’d just bought a region-free DVD player so I could watch Spooks faster than the discs were going to make it into Region 1. I remain glad that I watched it. One really can see that Armitage knows what he’s doing — perhaps because the character he plays is so easy to dislike.

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UF01

Dislikable but definitely not ugly: Richard Armitage as Ian Macalwain in a publicity still for Ultimate Force. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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Captain Ian Macalwain was one of Richard Armitage’s least likable characters ever. Macalwain is multiply and apparently deservedly hated. From his first appearance, he reveals himself as a rank-enforcing, rules-obsessed, out-of-touch, supercilious creep merely on his own terms. Armitage’s then still very Mephistophalean eyebrows (I think he plucks now) came to good use whenever he had to respond to challenges to Macalwain’s authority. But of course the members of Red Troop despite him on the additional grounds that he is an inexperienced officer, and that he replaces Dotsy Doheny, their previous officer, whom they respect for sacrificing his career in order to save Red Troop after episode one of the second series.

In press after the role, Armitage noted (in a way that would become familiar to his fans) that he’d built a past for Macalwain that made his actions understandable, but none of this is visible in the series itself. He becomes slightly more sympathetic in personal terms when he appears to sympathize with Mrs. Twamley (Laura, played by Jackie Morrison), the patient and put-upon wife of Pete (Tony Curran), who bears the brunt of her husband’s inability to deal with PTSD after the brutal last episode of series 1. But Macalwain’s sympathy turns to something more. After a rather desperate hotel room encounter that Laura initiates, Macalwain appears unable to accept her regret and take “no” for an answer. His interest in and pursuit of her in turn trigger his murder by his subordinate, Henno Garvie (Ross Kemp), who’s already built up plenty of resentment over Macalwain’s inexperience, insistence on maintaining hierarchies, and refusal to support Red Troop’s sub rosa illegal activities.

I admit that I haven’t watched all of the episode in which Macalwain dies, though I have seen the death scene. I don’t really like Ultimate Force that much. I wonder what historians will say someday about these macho military dramas of the 2000s, and if they will comment on the ever-present threat of the unseen terrorist, lurking in wait to kill millions, that undergirds them all. Ultimate Force isn’t the only Armitage project that mobilizes that trope — Spooks and Strike Back did it as well. But it was a good career choice for Armitage, professionally — the show was successful, the first two series are widely considered the best of the four, and it was sold and broadcast in over a hundred countries. Ross Kemp was the major career beneficiary of it, it seems, but it was a solid recurring role and offered scenes Armitage could put in his show reel (beyond, I suspect, his reference to the rugby scene in 2.2).

In particular, one I found myself thinking of today for some reason:

I’ve cut quite a bit of Curran’s performance out here (it’s very good, but I’m not interested in him). I’m not going to give you a blow by blow, but a few general observations. In this episode, as you remember, Red Troop is tasked with tracking down a group of suicide bombers who have targeted a London club and have threatened further mayhem. Macalwain suffers a number of status losses; first, he goes to the Twamleys’ looking for Pete and is greeted by Laura, who tells him that Pete’s out on an operation. Ouch. Then, as the investigation gets underway, Henno and company take over the pursuit of the terrorists, planning an illegal kidnapping in order to get to the source of the information quickly, to prevent further consequences. When Macalwain objects, he’s overruled repeatedly in a condescending way by Colonel Dempsey, who won’t even let him speak.

In the scene posted above, then, Macalwain’s observing Pete’s escalating violence in his interrogation of a suspect. What I enjoy in Armitage’s performance:

  • as later in his career, the general trajectory of the scene. Macalwain starts off with a clear position of discomfort with what’s happening (look at the position of his head as he starts his part of the scene, and the gestures with his mouth) but it fairly quickly turns in the direction of beginning a power struggle with Henno (Ross Kemp), which is the real topic of the scene. Throughout Armitage moves Macalwain smoothly through different registers of reaction, bouncing his lines off Kemp and using the energy he gains from Kemp’s resistance gradually to lift Macalwain’s status from the beginning of the scene so that he has the necessary status for the later confrontation.
  • the conflicting emotions in Macalwain’s situation — from anguish over the lack of respect he’s receiving, cut off with a camera shift, so that when the camera comes back to him we see clear, if subtle, rage in his eyes, jaw, and cut of his mouth. And then, once he’s delivered the line, the calculation of the manipulator — how will Henno respond to this challenge I’m giving him? By about 0:47, Macalwain’s decided he’s going to win this one and the question is how he will execute that triumph.
  • Macalwain’s refusal to “lose it” emotionally — as Macalwain gains status in the scene, he seems almost to compact himself, to shrink and harden his outsides, so that his insistence that Garvie get out of his way (oh those beautiful articulated consonants that say so much) is performed in typical Armitage style as a steering of the scene from a quiet rather than an obstreperous, loud position. When Macalwain agrees with Henno’s suggestion that he’ll be charged with insubordination, all the power of Macalwain’s status comes from inside his body — there’s no physical display at all, so that the raising, and then lowering of the eyebrows and flash of triumph in the eyes get all of our attention.
  • And yet we still know, at about 2:22 and after, that the power expenditure is costing Macalwain something — although he does not physically interfere with Pete, he is breathing irregularly; his eyes are affected.

What’s nice about this is that it suggests a sort of subtext to the two things that are clear about Macalwain from his first appearance in the series (that he’s worried about his own status and focused on maintaining old-style rank hierarchies, and that he’s rather rule-bound in the sense of wanting to defend his own career) — that is, while we can’t see Macalwain here as a defender of the victimized and tortured, at the same time, there’s some kind of emotion and perhaps even a related ethics that underlies his action. Challenging Henno and then preventing Pete from killing the suspect cost him something — a cost that Armitage signals quite subtly at the end of the scene.

One gets very much the feeling that Armitage left the RSC with an investment in under- rather than overplayed scenes — but he gets his point across nonetheless, and on the whole question of portraying gender roles (and one suspects class themes going on here as well that I’m not able to interpret with any deftness), we get a sense in which the rough-and-tumble but highly skilled and successful projection of Garvie’s masculinity fares in a power struggle with this underplayed, I’m in control, don’t mess with me vibe that Macalwain is putting on.

~ by Servetus on January 10, 2014.

10 Responses to “Early Richard Armitage scenes I like: Ian Macalwain in Ultimate Force 2.3”

  1. Goodness he looks young in that publicity still! His face was still soft and almost chubby!

    I did watch this series but like you, found it not really to my taste and I certainly wouldn’t have watched it other than for RA.

    I didn’t find his character as bad as you have painted it though – I found the Ross Kemp character far more dislikable.

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    • I’m going to stick with dislikable, I think. Between the power struggle he’s always involved in, the way he pouts when he doesn’t get his way, his inability to empathize with his men, his fear that if they are caught in illegal activities, he’ll get drawn in with them (the fact that he needs to be told to support his own men), and the whole deal with Laura, I just don’t see anything to like about him and if I had been in Red Troop I’d have felt the same way, I’m sure.

      That this is a typical Chris Ryan “Ruperts” portrayal of officers is, of course, clear as well.

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  2. I haven’t watched all of UF but strangely just before I saw this I ordered the DVD (because it’s still cheap – less than £3). I was vaguely aware of this series when it was broadcast but only as it was a vehicle for Ross Kemp coming off Eastenders. Agree it’s not my cup of tea either and vastly inferior to Strike Back or Spooks, but I’m quite looking forward to watching it just to see something new.

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    • it’s interesting to rewatch now in particular, I think. When I look at how Armitage backs off vocally from these confrontations (as in the scene above) I find it interesting how he deals with the same thing in Thorin.

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  3. Indeed, RA does look baby-faced in the publicity still. I also thought his character was not that obnoxious, and merely a bumptious public school twat. I could only bring myself to watch the series once due to the callous nature of the death scene. I also thought it was a bit unbelievable that Garvie (Ross Kemp) was going to get away with cold-blooded murder.

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    • This is one of the big complaints about the show — tons and tons of plot strands simply (unbelievably) abandoned or ignored. It’s hard for me to imagine a character like Henno wouldn’t be courtmartialed (or whatever that’s called in the UK) but this is again a Chris Ryan vanity project.

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  4. As mentioned before I only bought the series because of RA, didn´t like any of the characters except of Dotsy (like the actor Jamie Bamber, too). Will watch it again under the aspects of your post, observing RA´s spare gestures, lowering voice, gaze and moving eyebrows (wish I would be able to do that myself 🙂 )

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  5. It was interesting to see that even in that pretty juvenile series, Armitage had that stage presence that focuses attention on him. It is still a conundrum that his career did not “take off” much earlier. Assuming it actually has now?

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