Richard Armitage in “Brain on Fire” — evaluation (Toronto trip part 2)
Continued from here. Sorry for all that background, but I needed to establish the larger parameters of the film in which Richard Armitage is operating. Also, I wish I had more pictures with which to illustrate this post; I would have made some surreptitious cell phone photos in the theater but I didn’t want to embarrass Babette or get us thrown out! I thought for a while about the best way to present this. If the film will not receive a general release in any form, a detailed accounting of every second I remember would be best; but for the sake of readability, something less detailed might be better, because I don’t want to reveal every second or limit other fans’ capacity to discover the film for themselves. I’ve tried to make a compromise here. Babette, you’re invited to chime in with additional detail you think is important on interpretations and perceptions as well.
Thoughts about Brain on Fire’s Tom Cahalan
The notebook and near-pristine condition of the book in his lap in the picture that Richard Armitage tweeted to announce his next role as he left ComicCon San Diego for Vancouver on on July 12, 2015 suggested two things. First, he was engaged in what he calls “stripping out the character.” Second, since principal photography began on the 13th with Moretz’s scenes, he seemed to be only half-way through the book, and press announcement of his involvement didn’t come until the 16th, Armitage’s attachment to this project was a last-minute development. I hypothesize that the role came via his relationship to WME, which announced an official partnership with the Irish Film Board to promote Irish talent back in 2013. In short, I don’t think any courtship occurred here of the sort that has been described for both The Hobbit and The Crucible. Armitage’s own statements about the project so far have been limited to the hope that it honors the Cahalans’ story and achieves their goals. I assume his interest in participating came from professional interest rather than the film’s content, and that he was motivated by the involvement of Gerard Barrett as director. Barrett is considered an up-and-comer, based on his first two films (and now his recent television series, Smalltown).
I still wonder what Armitage thought, when he read this book, about the role he had agreed to take. To me, there are inherent problems with understanding Tom Cahalan as a character — that is, when viewed as portrayed by his daughter’s book. First, she’s a journalist and not a novelist; despite its subject, the book is not especially introspective and it tends to include any information only as it immediately forwards whatever current point of her narrative she’s focused on, so the reader has to piece together her father’s story from scattered details here and there. Secondly, the character of Tom in the book (and the film) exists functionally to serve Susannah Cahalan’s narrative needs — in order to focus on the disease narrative, of course, but also because Cahalan as she describes herself exudes an aura of mild entitlement not unusual among children of the upper middle class in the U.S. Finally, although Cahalan describes her father’s habit of journaling to cope, her book gives us little information about the journal itself. We learn about “a heartbreaking entry about praying that God would take him instead of me” in chapter 20, but little more. Cahalan’s reticence is laudable as a strategy for preserving as much of her family’s privacy as possible — and one can’t avoid the feeling after reading the book that relationship in this nuclear family are highly fraught, and thus possibly not in need of having potential dirty laundry aired — but it makes glimpses into her father’s emotions or inner states frustratingly opaque.
Nonetheless, I suspect that the Tom Cahalan who emerges from the pages of the book in these tiny fragments, or whom we can extrapolate about based on them, is a familiar character for the U.S. reader. He’s hot-tempered and excitable, yet not especially open about his emotions with his family; Susannah describes him as “not affectionate.” His marriage to Susannah’s mother was never smooth, and not unusually, their contentious divorce left the former couple almost unable to speak to each other. The divorce also led him to spend much less time with his daughter (the book says Susannah had never been close to her father, but one imagines tension around the split, and Susannah was sixteen at the time and naturally detaching anyway), though we don’t know exactly why. The distance is clear when Susanna remarks in the book that her father had informed her and her brother about his subsequent marriage to Giselle only a year afterwards. Yet the reader is not surprised when Tom steps up to be his daughter’s advocate during her illness, because we all know men and fathers like this. Undemonstrative, they are frequently self-centered in following their own priorities in unawareness of or at the expense of others’ feelings, but their absolute, irrevocable commitment to their families goes without saying. Tom is intimidating and forceful and not afraid to play these qualities up to get what he wants — not an unusual personality trait in a New York banker. Finally, he’s skeptical of medical authority.
In short, the character of Tom Cahalan largely conforms to the American stereotype of the absent father — if not physically absent, then certainly emotionally so — who even so will jump in like a super-hero with every cell of his being at a moment’s notice when required. American audiences accept that this personality type makes sense; I recognize elements of my own father in it. Significantly, Armitage has played this role before. In Into the Storm, it was “dad against the tornadoes,” while in Brain on Fire, it’s “dad against the doctors.” One imagines that this general type takes up a large part of the roles available to male actors here, insofar as we see it constantly in U.S. film. After seeing the film, I’m still undecided about which scenario I prefer, although on the whole I think Armitage’s talents were better used in this film than in Into the Storm.
But I hope the problems with the role are clear. The character as written has few indices of an independent existence or an inner life — the sort of thing Richard Armitage’s characters feed on — apart from his daughter’s perception of or willingness to refer to them. The book is often silent on decisive questions for understanding Tom that would require an exposure of private, family conflicts to answer. Tom’s unexplained, partial estrangement from his family complicates the portrayal of any contact with them as the backstory of these kinds of things is normally motivational for understanding interactions — a problem in particular when it comes to his relationship with his ex-wife. Finally, Tom participates in the story’s narrative only to save his daughter. When he does, he largely embodies a classic American stereotype, to which there is little for any actor to add at the moment, particularly in a film of ninety minutes. I’m not even an actor, and I would have been leery of this role.
me + Richard Armitage as Tom Cahalan in Brain on Fire
Still, I loved seeing Armitage in this film. The limitations of this kind of American father aside, he played the role well. As Babette said, “He did a great job of that, especially when you consider that he doesn’t have kids.” With the exception of one very brief moment, I never thought for an instant about his American accent. I looked just now, and he did ADR for this role in March 2016, after months of work on Berlin Station, probably with the assistance of Rebecca Gausnell; throughout this film, he produces an entirely reputable American standard with a resonance that more closely approaches that of his native accent than we’ve yet heard. The script added details to incidents that the book referred to without describing them in much depth, and the role of Tom was re-written to create a greater contrast of personality between him and Rhona, his ex-wife (more below). As a result, he gained screen time. Adding or deepening scenes in which Tom is present gives us several of the more convincing moments of the film (more below), not least because Armitage seems to provoke more from Moretz’s restricted expressive palette than does Thomas Mann as Stephen, Susannah’s boyfriend. Interestingly, the first full line of dialogue is Susannah yelling “Dad!” from her hospital bed, and this choice signals the centrality of the relationship to the film’s story.
At the same time, however, Brain on Fire made me wonder how well Armitage is really suited to the often unsubtle tension between the axes of generic American male role — forceful / detached vs openly emotional. He’s excellent at strong and silent (John Porter, Lucas North), where he gets my unconditional endorsement, and the camera loves the architectural qualities of his face — something more evident in this film than in Into the Storm. Even so, I struggled with something about the way he was pushed to occupy — or chose himself to portray the opposite poles of — his emotional range here, and this was the major question I left the theater with: was Armitage’s emotionalism appropriate to this character and this film? I think once you see this film you’ll be inclined to think he shouts a lot and too forcefully, although given Moretz’s performance, I wonder if that direction came from Barrett. But it’s impossible to tell if some things I reacted to as missteps I really enjoyed him in this film; I am into anything that gets him playing normal human beings; at times his practice of emotion works with extreme effectiveness; at times I query whether it’s well suited to this type of American male role.
I’m going to discuss a few scenes now, and I hope that they make these points clear. I’m going to try to avoid spoilers too much, so I’m not going to recap the content of scenes except in places where the difference between the book and the film makes an important difference to Armitage’s work.
We first see Tom at a birthday party for Susannah. Susannah is introducing her boyfriend, Stephen, to her family for the first time. The book refers to this meeting in chapter 2, but the film builds it out into an entire scene and adds her mother to the party to display the family constellation and its tensions. Awkwardness ensues. Armitage gets plus points from me here for two elements of the scene. First, his unabashedly aggressive swagger, standing at a grill, cooking, and drinking from his beer bottle, as he quizzes Stephen about his career prospects and expresses open disdain. This Tom has the kind of voice that inspires the response of “sir” at the end of sentences. Second, when the guests gather to watch Susannah blow out the candles, his affectionate posture as her father.
At the next point in the narrative when we see Tom, Susannah has begun to experience hallucinations and believes that her faucet is dripping (a rewrite of part of chapter 4). She asks her father to come over and help her fix it, and it seems at this point that he is not aware of what’s been going on with her, other than that she’s been diagnosed with mono. This was one of my favorite scenes in the film because it seemed so honest, so true to reality, and worked so well in the stream of the film’s narrative. Again, Armitage as father, in the vein of the American man who may have no idea how to talk to his daughter, but will demonstrate his love by fixing her mechanical problems. He can’t discover a drip, but he does discover the strange smell of her apartment and he reacts just as a parent frustrated with a teen’s mess does (Babette affirmed this reaction for me), before he helps her clean up, asks her about how serious she is and then warns her about Stephen, finally leaving, but not before she gets in a vicious parting shot. I love the scene because it works so well in a way that much of the first part of the film doesn’t, and because the interactions between and Susannah are both familiar and visceral. If we wonder in the office scenes why Susannah’s coworkers aren’t taking better care of her, here her odd behavior seems to fit entirely in the context of her previous relationship with her father, which makes the scene one of the few in the film that upholds the suspense of the story: is she or isn’t she mentally ill? When she says such a mean thing to her father, is she simply being frank in the wake of her parents’ divorce, or is this the first signal of the wildly inappropriate speech of incipient schizophrenic?
In both of these scenes, there’s also an intriguing contrast in his dealings with Susannah between forcefulness and blunt masculinity (I hate to say it, but when he’s quizzing Stephen, Armitage is hot), and a loving gentleness that occasionally creeps through.
The next noticeable memorable scene for Armitage occurs after Susannah experiences her first tonic-clonic seizure (chapter 8) and requires emergency care (chapter 9). It’s interesting that Tom is added to this scene — in the book, Susannah’s mother Rhona and her partner come when Stephen calls, but in the film, both parents are there. This is the first scene that sets up the contrast that the film seems to want us to see between Tom and Rhona. The book sees it differently, stating that both parents are hot-tempered, but in the film, Tom’s loud and explosive energy are contrasted with Rhona’s quieter insistence. Rhona is concerned about Susannah; Tom is also concerned, but expresses his concern by taking Stephen to pointed and strenuous task for not calling either of them while Susannah was in the emergency room: “Do you care about her or not?” is his first line. Rhona has to talk him down. It’s also the first sign the film gives that Tom’s anger could be really dangerous. While it also raises questions about how pushy and dominant it would be realistic for Tom to be here (more below), and where the character’s anger trajectory could go from here, I think the film is setting us up for a much later scene in which Tom relents and accepts Stephen — and that scene, although too short, is also one of the most beautiful moments in the film, perfectly scripted and perfectly acted.
At first, Susannah retreats with her mother and Allen to their home in Summit, NJ. Here the film departs from the book to simplify it — one of the ways that we can tell the film is not trying to sensationalize or exaggerate the problems of anti-NDMA receptor encephalitis is that it cuts out material here that would have supported that approach in order to focus instead on how the family comes to realize how sick their daughter is. Rhona’s theory seems to be that Susannah is over-taxed and suffering a nervous breakdown, but after several stressful moments including long negotiations about the medication given to her by a psychiatrist, Rhona confesses her inability to deal with the situation to Tom (“I need you to take her”) and Susannah goes to stay with Tom and Giselle. The episode in the subsequent scene is described in chapter 13 of the book, although there are also content divergences here.
On the whole, I was almost never convinced by Moretz’s tantruming as a way to portray Susannah’s paranoia. But this scene is really convincing. We start with the three seated at a dining table, and Armitage as Tom looks the consummate paterfamilias here. But soon, Susannah is accusing Giselle of saying things to her, and then poisoning her; Tom, still dealing in his world where his daughter is being unreasonable rather than revealing her illness, takes a deep breath and points out that Giselle cooked dinner to please Susannah. We’re seeing here exactly the dynamic of the previous scene in which Susannah is teetering on an interpretive edge — but this time it tips, and it tips in a really realistic way. As Susannah decompensates, Tom first becomes frustrated, then angry — and then, he really looks at Susannah and realizes that whatever else is going on, the situation is not normal. By this point Moretz has retreated into a corner next to a cabinet, and Armitage’s Tom gets drawn into an almost physical push and pull as Moretz alternately withdraws and explodes. At the end of the scene — completely believably — everyone is sobbing.
The next day, Susannah will be admitted to the epilepsy until of the hospital at NYU (chapter 14), and here we see the kind of interaction that the film seems to want us to accept as characteristic of the parents’ relationship — while both of them are insistent in their beliefs that Susannah is not suffering simply from “partying too hard,” Rhona is more quietly assertive, whereas Armitage always moves Tom from zero to sixty in 0.5 seconds. This is the second scene where we see his explosive yelling, this time at the doctor, insisting that Susannah needs to be hospitalized by nightfall and they will not leave until she is. At this point, as a viewer, I was still in the situation of feeling this anger reflects different facets: Tom’s social and economic status, which he uses to get what he wants; Tom’s skepticism of doctors in general; and his inability (stereotypical American male) to deal with a threat to his daughter.
Although we see a number of examinations at this point in the film, still the film (wisely in my opinion) compresses and truncates several book chapters that describe Susannah’s hallucinations and delusions. Interspersed in these scenes are glimpses of Tom, who sleeps on a window seat in Susannah’s room over several days indicated by changes of clothing. This is the kind of brief but inobtrusive glimpse this film does particularly well and I’m delighted that Barrett chose Armitage to play these vignettes — he has a good way of not overloading them with meaning. Similarly, as the family hears different opinions and diagnoses from different doctors, the camera shifts to a kind of editing we often saw on Spooks, with the various people at the table showing their reaction to statements or conclusions by making eye contact as the camera or the editing shifted to another character. Here, too, I feel Tom / Armitage gets a somewhat disproportionate number of closeups. To some extent, this is warranted as the script sets him up as the emotional one. All I can say is that no matter what you end up thinking of the film, you will probably enjoy these.
As the diagnoses proceed and new doctors are added to the team, the family’s frustration with the situation grows. The next scene in a doctor’s office has Tom / Armitage insisting that Susannah should not receive a psychiatric diagnosis; and there is yet a further one where he again reverts to his ongoing strategy of volatile insistence that the doctors explain and fix what’s going on. There’s an intriguing moment between Tom and Rhona after one of these meetings where we see the flip side of Tom’s anger, namely his discouragement, in a view of his back and the angle of his exhausted shoulders. I don’t want to detail each of these separately, but contemplated together and in sequence they get to my question about the way that Armitage’s emotionality fit with this role (or with other roles like it). The direction here seems simply for Tom to get very angry (and he does — and oh, my, I had the same feeling that I had in London two years ago, watching Proctor — I would not want to be in the same room with an angry Richard Armitage).
Knowing what I do about the character, I can explain a kind of violent expostulation that strikes me as not how most people speak to doctors in such situations. I can also imagine, even based on the book, that Tom Cahalan is capable of engendering more than the average turbulence in dealing with people under unpleasant or stressful circumstances. My issue in watching this, though, is that I’m not sure Armitage is entirely comfortable with living so far on the edge of such negative emotions, not just outrage, but grief as well. It’s so often the case that rather than push something negative, Armitage will pull back to give himself space, drawing attention to the zinger line but not making it the most obvious one. I have generally not found him to be an overactor. But in a lot of these scenes, Armitage reverts to mannerisms we haven’t seen from him a while, things out of his own gestural canon such as hand to mouth, both hands to face, and the “pleading hands” that worked so well for Proctor but don’t seem to fit here, perhaps because hiding emotion doesn’t work for Tom, or simply because he doesn’t know what to do to make the character’s emotion appear even more tempestuous. Whether as a result of hurried characterization, a quick shoot, direction that told him to move in this direction, or something else I don’t know about, toward the penultimate quarter of the film, Armitage occasionally seems to act himself into a corner, in that his emotions escalate the character to a place where there is nowhere else for him to go when things get even more stressful — as they inevitably do. But in watching the film only once, these are more impressions than they are well-argued conclusions.
The film again ends well. There’s the perfectly crafted scene I mentioned above when Tom accepts Stephen as family, and a neat moment where we see Tom in jogging gear, urging Susannah on as she practices walking outside again. When the news starts to get better again, there are again more closeups and reaction shots. In the end, the film rescripts Tom more openly to conform to the development in his relationship with his daughter that had occurred toward the end of the book:
My dad and I had gone off to war, fought in the trenches, and against all odds had come out of it alive and intact. There are few other experiences that can bring two people closer than staring death in the face.
(Susannah Cahalan, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness (New York: Free Press, 2013), p. 199.
This approach may not be entirely fair to Cahalan’s mother, but it benefits Armitage in this role and increases the drama of the piece. Despite my occasional reservations about how Armitage deals with Tom Cahalan’s emotions, I thought he turned in a strong, often sensitive performance here.
And if you don’t like the film — well, you should love his casual clothing as most of it’s blue. Well, except if you hate plaid.