Is John Standring forever? An early ugly Armitage

Spark1[Left: Richard Armitage as John Standring in a promotional image for Sparkhouse. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com]

It’s come up again for me since seeing the snippets of Richard Armitage in Pinter/PROUST, not least because it used to be the case that a stage performance of whatever sort simply disappeared into history and was unlikely to be captured in a way that allowed posterity to see it unless a film had been planned in advance. That must have made stage performances more liberating than they are now. I think of Armitage saying to George Stromboulopoulos, “That’s why they say film is forever.”  We could only harvest details about the styles of actors before film but now we can make actual comparisons.

In any case, the question that has often occupied me recently: which of his works pleases Richard Armitage the most? For which would he like to be remembered some day? (And which does he regard differently now than he might have earlier?) We know that he cringes when watching his own work, which is fully understandable, although he’s suggested that Peter Jackson has helped him deal with this reaction. Repeated statements have revealed that he considers North & South a career highlight. But he has also stated that he saw Sparkhouse as a career turning point in terms of how to audition successfully. I also find it interesting that the scene below was one of the long scenes included in Armitage’s last available showreel (left unupdated after the third series of Robin Hood), which suggests that it might have been there earlier as well, as a piece of his own work that he used to sell himself to possible employers or something he was reasonably proud of. The showreel seemed cut to display a variety of things but heavily put his action repertoire and his capacity for violent athleticism on display over his more dramatic scenes. So I wanted to look more closely at that scene, since its presence seemed to indicate it meant something to him.

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I made all the caps in this post.

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This isn’t my favorite scene from Sparkhouse, I admit, but really I like almost every scene he’s in, and this would probably be among my favorites. Looking at the role of John Standring in the wake of a decade of work, we can see that Armitage has definitely moved on from this (overly detailed? too theatrical) acting style, but it works for the role, there are a number of interesting things about it, and we can see the Armitage of 2013 germinating. I can also see why he’d choose this scene, just because given the many script improbabilities that animated Sparkhouse (such as the crazy proposal, which is possibly my favorite of its weird plot twists and of Armitage’s scenes), this scene actually looks like the sort of encounter that one could have about an unrequited love (albeit an extreme variation on that theme). I think he’s right that this is one of the most valuable dramatic moments of the script that could be transferable to a wider context of viewers. Perhaps, too, he chose it to emphasize his ability to play against type and to demonstrate his capacity to portray less-than-beautiful characters.

What a painful, painful scene. In it, we reel in response to the pained and painful aura of a man who gives his most precious gift absent any belief that he’s truly worthy of being appreciated for it, or himself, in any way. We expect the “morning after” for someone of such gentle mien as John to be loving and tender, but John is severely conscious of his deficiencies as lover, so that his gift is equally an apology, a desperate token of affection, and a request not to be abandoned for his failure. There’s a curious tension in the way Armitage constructs this character between Standring’s awareness of his status as a human (his belief that he could, in fact, have a relationship with Carol, over against our perception of how far out of his class she feels herself) and his performance of the shy hired man who expects rejection that makes so many of these scenes just plain hurt to watch.

As Standring exits the house, every moment of this pain is on display on his face, developing as he moves away from the door and despite an apparent resolution to get away even though he realizes that Carol is following him from the house. Having given his gift, he wants to be well away before it can be rejected, along with him.

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As he walks away we see this combination of resolution, inner contemplation, shutting himself into his box again after letting himself out, and apparent pain. It culminates in the last split second before he turns to face Carol (Sarah Smart), when shame is clearly the uppermost mood playing on his face.

Here Armitage is speaking in the upper tones of his then relatively constant baritone, which seemed to drop pitch the longer he worked in television. The pitch of Standring’s voice reflects both the stress of the encounter and the amount of tenderness he feels toward Carol, even if he must express it so awkwardly that merely turning to face her for a conversation presents a bit of a struggle. (Contrast here, again, the awkward man who believes it the normal human thing to do to give a gift on Christmas to the woman with whom you’ve just had an erotic encounter, but doesn’t believe that she will want it. The whole dynamic of going through the motions as if you’re really human but not quite, and the desperation and determination that underlie that problem, how to keep walking, crouched but goal-oriented, through a sort of sheltered half-life, are riveting to watch.)

Standring turns to face Carol, and the distance of the camera from the shot obscures slightly the choices Armitage makes for him here. Here Standring makes his case: “I want you to have i’ now!” The awkward stance, as if his body is a column from which his neck hangs, the deep breath, the twitching left hand, are the dominant impressions of this moment of the scene, but don’t neglect to look at Standring’s eyebrows.

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As Standring makes his case, again we see this fantastic conflict between the shades of personality between down at the mouth subject and hopeful man. He’s making eye contact with the much shorter Carol, and his head position looks abject, but his facial expressions and eyebrow movements signal to her his promise to be something different than he was the night before. I know I can be more for you, Carol, his forehead seems to say, optimistically, even if his body already concedes his defeat. His eyebrows move practically like the wings of a bird here, and this is still the expressional repertoire of the stage actor at work, I think (which he discussed having to edit down for television in a post-North & South interview). But with the camera so far away they again call attention to the contradictions in this character.

When the camera turns to him again, we see the way in which Carol steers the scene — in each of these cases, she takes the initiative and he responds, and his response is somehow not enough — he can’t stand up straight, he can’t convince her with his earnest promise to “improve,” and now, one sense from the sadness in his response to her statement that she’s fond of him, his full awareness of the impending rejection.

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Above, we see the gradually intensifying introspective look that Armitage would later edit down for characters like John Porter, in an almost slow-motion version. Part of that, I suppose, can be attributed to differences in the characters, but watching Standring is interesting because of how much of his inner conflict we can see, in comparison to later roles where Armitage would reduce certain reactions down to the level of flickering moments or microexpressions. At about 0:31 note also the characteristic eye-lash flutter of distress, which he will intensify in the next cut to his face.

That Standring is fatefully? fatally? cathected to Carol we see when she delivers the lines asserting that no one deserves her — his reaction is so painful that we read that her self-criticism strikes him — the man who admires her — to the bone.

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Her rejection of him on the basis of her being “bad,” thus status-worse than him, is something he can’t accept; it hits his self-concept even harder, and his attempt to reach out is rejected with a shake of her chin. All he can do in the end is react, again with a slow-motion version of the developing sorrow and defeat inside of him:

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As he looks from the necklace pressed back into his hand toward her retreating figure, we see defeat, puzzlement, and a certain amount of resentment emerge on his features.

So yes, in addition to any structural considerations for using this scene as part of a showreel, many pieces of characteristic Armitage are on view here from the highly mobile and characteristic facial expressions to the multi-layered emotions. We see the remnants of a stage version of a very heavily figured face and we can almost watch the thoughts run through Standring’s mind — appropriate to the character’s perhaps not entirely quick-witted nature, but also a symptom of the early point in Armitage’s career. We see the contradictions in the self-awareness of the character built right in — am I a man or not? am I worthy of regard or not? — down to the Standring’s very stance. We see Armitage wrestling with the status problem of the tall, powerful man who has no sense of his worth, who speaks to a tiny woman who drags that self-concept even further down through her insults to herself, and who has to address both the contradiction in physical sizes and the contrast between their relative power in the interaction, particularly since he’s aware he’s already lost before he’s started. The result is a moving portrayal of a mixture of hopefulness against despair, and humiliation, the sadness of a small flicker of determination fighting against the shame written on every inch of a very large, ultimately defeated, confused body.

Do you think Armitage would use this scene as a display case now? How well does it stand up?

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(In conclusion, this is just a gratuitous thumbshot with frayed cuticle.)

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~ by Servetus on February 3, 2014.

25 Responses to “Is John Standring forever? An early ugly Armitage”

  1. I have always thought this to be a heartbreakingly good performance–very much indicating this handsome, charming actor can do much more than play typical dramatic leads or action heroes. Yes, his acting has become more subtle with time and experience, but I’d still call it a keeper. In fact, it helps illustrate just how he has evolved in his craft.

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  2. It still amazes me how someone like Richard can play a character like John Standring with such sincerity.In my opinion, Sparkhouse is one of his finest works till date, even if his performance was a teensy bit less subtle than his recent ones. John Standring was awkward, moving and brilliant. Yep, has to be a part of the display case!

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    • I suppose it helps to not quite have everything under control if you’re playing an awkward person, though I still ask myself about the whole role that awkwardness (or apparent awkwardness) plays in our perception of Armitage the person as well.

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  3. You know, when I watched this it was after discovering RA in N&S and then seeing him on Robin Hood and MI5. Already having the sexy/beautiful RA in my head probably colored my perception of the series and his casting in it. (Maybe if I had seen this first I wouldn’t have known how beautiful he really is and reacted differently, but there’s no way to know since I didn’t). I remember thinking how strange that they would cast someone so stunningly good looking in a role like this. Even though he does a great job acting the role, his beauty really can’t be hidden and I just thought that in real life this guy would be ugly or at the very least blandly unattractive. The world rewards beauty (and height) and it’s hard to believe people who really are *that* tall, dark and handsome (as RA is, even behind the costume, makeup and bad posture), wouldn’t have *some* confidence.

    I know it’s based on Wuthering Heights and so the Carol character is going to love the other dude no matter what, but I was just thinking jeez lady, this guy is freaking hot and loves you, get it together woman. I realize actors are meant to be more beautiful than people in real life, but sometimes I find it hard to buy movies or shows in which the person playing the role is so much more attractive than their non-fiction counterpart would be (hello, every ‘regular girl’ in movies and tv is unrealistically skinny and cellulite-free, even when they drown their sorrows in pints of ice cream).

    It’s really a tribute to his skill as an actor that he works in this role at all – and I do think he does quite a good performance, playing so much against type (because he is so clearly physically a leading man, and this is a character actor role). As far as it holding up after all these years or using it on his reel now… hmm… I certainly think the performance holds up as an example of his ability to play something so different from what you would expect given his physical features but the question is what it does for him in terms of the career he wants to pursue. Obviously none of us who don’t know him knows what he wants out of his career and I admit I am not an expert in Armitage studies on your level, but from what I have read, I get the impression that he would actually prefer to be a character actor in the mold of a Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP PSH, btw, a great actor), than competing with the Ben Afflecks and Bradley Coopers of the world for the leading man roles in big movies. (Which it sounds like is happening now, just saw some quote where he talked about competing with big actors who have longer Hollywood CVs). He has said things in interviews about not wanting to rely on his looks, that it took him a while to grow into them and of course they will fade, so having a career based on looks seems to make him uncomfortable. He also has mentioned that he would rather play a Bond villain than Bond himself. Of course physically he embodies Bond perfectly and is too handsome to be the villain. I think this is an interesting juncture in his career and you bring up a good point as to whether this role would serve him well at this moment or not depending on where he wants his career to go.

    I was thinking about this the other day and it struck me that the best American counterpart to RA is Jon Hamm. Same age, same physical identity (tall, dark, handsome, strong, deep voice). Similar career trajectory – Hamm struggled for a long time before hitting it big in Mad Men and has since played some great character roles from Liz Lemon’s awkward boyfriend to the FBI agent in The Town. Because of his relationship with Jennifer Westfeldt, he is also tuned in to the indie world and was great in her latest film Friends with Kids (which was so good I had to watch it again right after it finished, great movie). Hamm has played some roles where his looks are downplayed but never really to the level of RA in Sparkhouse. I guess where I am going with this is that I don’t think roles like this where RA’s looks would be so incongruous are really in his future now that he is pretty well known as being *so* tall, dark and handsome. I could see him having a similar career to Jon Hamm’s but not necessarily to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s (who really specialized in vulnerable outcasts who could really only be played by someone who did not possess traditional leading man looks).

    I realize all of what I just said is contradicted by the fact that he just played a dwarf in The Hobbit movies BUT those are once in a lifetime movies for which he underwent hours of makeup every day and was shrunk using cgi technology – so I don’t think he is going to be making a long career out of playing dwarves.

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    • Agree on the nonrealism of casting Armitage in this role (especially since the actor who plays Andrew is less conventionally attractive) and totally agree on the tedium of “average girl” roles cast with gorgeous actors. I also agree that character actor was always an aspiration of his (among others) and I think that’s one reason why this was in the showreel. And also agree strongly about how roles like this are not in his immediate future. Pretty much, agree, agree, agree.

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      • 🙂
        Also, re RA’s career, and not that my opinion matters at all, but I have been thinking for a few months that this man needs to get himself to Sundance. I was thinking about it leading up this festival, which of course he didn’t go to but I really think it would be a good idea for him to go next year after the last Hobbit blitz. 1) great skiing 2) His circles so far have been theatre in London (and a little in NYC), tv in Britain, and Hollywood. He is living in NYC so is expanding his circle in the theatre world but if he focuses too much on Hollywood (movies and tv), he will miss out on the opportunity to do some great roles in independent films. I think he needs to be mingling with the kinds of directors and producers who are going to Sundance. Yes, it has become something of a publicity sh-tshow with all the random cheesy starlets and huge corporate sponsors. BUT it is also the place where the most interesting filmmakers are congregating in one town for 10 days and during that time going to screenings and parties and mingling together in a way that doesn’t feel so much like Hollywood. I feel like it would be good for him to be known in that world because that is where the great roles are happening.
        3) skiing – with me in Deer Valley 😉 hahaha

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        • Funny, I thought the same thing about Sundance when I was reading an article about it in EW—that it could be a good environment for someone like Richard who is also interested in doing smaller, more character-driven projects.

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        • He doesn’t read like Mr. Comfortable Mingler. Who knows?

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  4. It’d be nice to see RA in a role with as much depth as your analysis or the John Stranding character — something more substantial than TH. IMHO, RA makes John Stranding a much more interesting character than he did Thorn — at least it seems so for the first movie since I still haven’t seen the second one. Part of that may be because PJ is more into the special effects than character development. I’ve noticed that a lot of British actors are in these Marvel superhero films and have to wonder why?!? Hope RA doesn’t go down that road!

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    • Money and exposure, I assume.

      I’ll have to think about whether I think Standring is more interesting than Thorin based on Armitage’s portrayal. Standring is the kind of character I love just structurally, whereas Thorin is not.

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    • With someone like Tom HIddleston, he seems to really be a geek himself and to enjoy the whole Comic Con, Marvel fandom. I do wonder if RA, being kind of a geek, would enjoy something like that (on a bigger scale than he’s done – since he’s already been in a Marvel movie). If he could take the kind of glee in it that TH & Robert Downey Jr. seem to, then I’d be thrilled for him . . . but I do love Standring 🙂

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      • I think you’ve touched on a sort of .. I don’t know the word. Divide? boundary? that a lot of Armitage fans seem to confront at some point. Hiddles is just so gleeful. Or willing to perform his playfulness in public. Armitage has never shown signs of that. I think he could certainly enjoy a Hobbit convention but do I see him being Hiddleston in that performative way? Well, we haven’t seen it, yet, I guess.

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        • It does seem unlike him in general to be that demonstrative in public. He was obviously tickled pink to be in the Hobbit, but we know that because of what he’s said, not because he came on stage at SDCC in his Thorin outfit, bellowing magestically at the crowd. And if he did, we’d probably all wonder if he was ok.

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          • I know I would. Or if he were acting. I think that’s part of the problem. We want him to be natural, but what if natural is unacceptable in some way?

            I showed the clip of Hiddles to my students yesterday — we were involved in a discussion of appearances — and they were split about whether that was natural, or whether it was “showing off.” The discussion turned to how we evaluate that kind of act, culturally, and it’s not the same in every case. The discussion then turned to Macklemore and whether it’s arrogant to apologize to another performer for winning an award (and then instagram the apology). My impression is that Armitage would struggle with *that* kind of performance, and that may be part of what was going on in NYC at the Hobbit event. Only speculation, of course.

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  5. I have long lost the ability to look at Armitage’s performances with any semblance of objectivity. I find everything he does stunning. (Well, ok, *more or less* stunning.) So therefore you can take my opinion with a pinch of salt. I discovered Sparkhouse after N&S, Spooks and Strike Back, and if I remember rightly my initial reaction was one of delight at seeing him as a less than beautiful man. No doubt he must have learnt a lot in the years since Sparkhouse, but I actually think that he played Standring just right. The less subtle facial expressions and gestures seem in keeping with the character to me – an outsider and loner, socially inept, aware of his shortcomings and therefore an awkward man, in his expression of feelings. Armitage’s subtlety of expression in Spooks or SB is very fitting for a spy or a covert military agent (they are all about concealing themselves), but the subdued microexpressions would’ve been far too sophisticated for the honest farmhand Standring. Therefore I think that Sparkhouse still stands up as a noteworthy performance, not least because he plays a character that is not automatically loved for his attractive outward appearance. In Sparkhouse he had to convince through his acting rather than his looking good. I think he did that very well. And I think that Sparkhouse also shows Armitage’s approach of always finding dichotomy in his characters – which is easy to do in something like SB where Porter is very clearly a conflicted man (killing machine vs wronged soldier vs father and husband) but less so in a smaller role like Standring. As a minor character, Standring was probably not fleshed out as much (because the audience doesn’t need him to be), but Armitage makes him a rounded character with some depth – not just a dim-witted fool hopelessly in love, but he gives him self-awareness and humanity. (I’d love to know whether Armitage was already in the habit of writing character bios at that early stage in his career – and what he would’ve come up with for Standring. Also, I wonder how easy or difficult he found Standring to play – how easy is it to slip into the skin of an “ugly” character when you are pretty, yourself???)

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    • Good point about the differences in the sophistication levels of the characters, Guylty. Something I have always theorized is that Richard looked back to his adolescent days when he shot up to his full height at a young age and felt like the odd man out at times. I think he may have tapped into those feelings of awkwardness, the “beanpole with the big hooter” who wasn’t the beautiful man quite yet.

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  6. I think he should,Serv. As for now Standring stays my favorite Richard’s creation though I have high expectations for the *complete* Thorin…
    Maybe unsuspected depth of Garry the teacher will dump Standring of the pedestal? 😉 Who knows.
    Great post,thanks.

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  7. John Standring is still one of my favorite of his roles and I think it stands the test of time. I don’t find his acting here “too theatrical” at all. Hope he thinks it’s still worthy of keeping on any future showreel.

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    • I would put this and BTS and to some extent Cold Feet in a group together where his acting style is very similar. (UF is slightly different because the character is so inherently stylized). I don’t think it’s a matter of role so much as it is of choices he makes about how to express emotions, how to move the intensity lever. In these early roles he is doing that in a very obvious way that he toned down later (and it’s not per se about the guarded quality of a spy, let’s say, because there’s also a clear break to Guy of Gisborne). There’s a scene in CF that I’ve wanted to write about for a while; will put it on the list and maybe I can make my claim more precise.

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  8. I love Standring–he made the entire movie for me, .because the way the two main characters were written was so incredibly painful–but I think Richard helped to pull it all together with his beautifully understated performance of a man so truly worthwhile but doesn’t realize that at all.

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    • well, I’d agree that he becomes more understated as the series progresses; I’m not sure I’m willing to call him understated here. Part of Standring’s dramatic problem here is precisely that he can’t hide what he’s thinking very well — he is almost childlike.

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  9. […] does not figure in any of the long scenes (as opposed to the scene from Sparkhouse that I discussed here and two other scenes I’ll be moving to eventually). In the montage, Guy’s role seems to […]

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