Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Lord of the Rings Films Performance Review Series: Legolas

Legolas: Orlando Bloom was another of the “outliers,” a British actor cast more for looks than any other obvious quality. With a fairly thin resume at the time of his casting, this young face provided a lithe physicality fit for an Elven prince, but added little in the way of substance.

Not unlike Elijah Wood being over-matched in his role as Frodo, Bloom doesn’t deliver much insight for the audience into the ways and minds of the Elven-folk, despite being easily the most visible character from that species throughout the three films. As I mentioned in my previous post about Gandalf, playing a non-human of any kind is difficult for an actor. In the case of the Istari and the Eldar, immortality is perhaps the defining characteristic of these roles and it is extremely challenging to understand it and portray how that trait defines a character to an audience. We are all human beings here in the real world, and all humans are mortal. But mortals have no concept of just how mortal they are until they meet a being which is not mortal. The incredible shock and the implications such an encounter would have can scarcely be imagined, and trying to convey how such a profoundly different (from humans) racial trait would have on a character’s psyche and motivations to moviegoers is no easy thing to do. Bloom, in spite of an enviable opportunity to do this, contributes surprisingly little to the cause. As Wood’s youth likely limited his ability to effectively portray Frodo’s epic spiritual struggle with the Ring, Jackson’s decision to cast a young and fairly inexperienced actor in the role of a royal character who is nearly 3,000 years old at the time of the story was misguided, and for all of the same reasons.

Having dropped those bombs, it is certainly fair to point out Jackson himself and the mere fact we’re talking about converting a massive tale to film are largely to blame here. Legolas is another one of the secondary roles which gets diminished very nearly to a stock character by reductions and simplifications in the script. Nearly the first decent moment we get from Legolas that doesn’t involve putting arrows through goblin throats or leaping across gaping chasms is in the Elven boat with Gimli recounting his interaction with the Lady Galadriel. In this mini-scene, Legolas acts simply as the catalyst for Gimli telling his story and serves no other purpose. The one instant Bloom does get which could have been impactful, however, is the character’s reaction to how Galadriel treats Gimli’s request for “a single hair from her golden head.” The facial expression from Bloom seems to be some sort of knowing approval (one can be forgiven if “smirk” comes to mind), but we’re not quite sure what Legolas thinks about this exchange, and that may be because Bloom himself did not know what to make of it. The implications of the Galadriel/Gimli story are significant and far-reaching for Dwarves, Elves, and the Free Peoples in general, but none of this comes across in Bloom’s choice of reaction to its telling. In fairness, two seconds of non-verbal acting isn’t much time to make anything of all of this significance and far-reaching-ness, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles in film.

In my opinion, Bloom's best moment in the entire trilogy comes when Gandalf informs the Fellowship a Balrog is approaching. Jackson gives Legolas somewhere between half a second and a full second on-screen, and Bloom's look of suppressed terror is an excellent moment which succeeds in conveying everything the Elf would think and feel at hearing such news. Legolas isn't old enough to have tussled with a Balrog himself, but as he says later while Aragorn relays the tale of Gandalf's fall to Celeborn and Galadriel, "It was a Balrog of Morgoth. Of all the Elf-banes most deadly, save the One who sits in the Dark Tower." This sentiment is captured in that one outstanding second -- Jackson is to be applauded for recognizing its need and Bloom for a solid delivery.

The general lack of specificity in Bloom’s acting creates problems, however, as the films progress. We are treated to a couple of delightful moments when Legolas ribs Gimli at various times and also when welcoming Aragorn “back from the dead” after he “took a little tumble off the cliff,” but all prolonged moments are uniformly weak for Bloom. His outburst at Aragorn in the armories of Helm’s Deep does little more than confuse the audience. In reality, this argument was most likely intended by Jackson to be little more than a set piece to show Aragorn’s commitment to the people of Rohan which, in the films, is an important part of Aragorn’s development. The rare opportunity is wasted on Bloom, however, whose manner of delivery comes out of nowhere. Legolas later apologizes for speaking out of despair, but where did it come from? Throughout a full six hours of film, by this point, we’ve seen nothing but confidence-bordering-on-cockiness from Bloom, even under extreme personal danger (save the Balrog, as mentioned previously); why this sudden onset of hopelessness? Most of these extra-Tolkien inserts by Jackson are poorly written and this one is no exception, but the actor has to make something of such moments, same as any other. Bloom does not appear to have considered the source or motivation of his character for this scenelet or, at the very least, it’s not coming through to us in the audience. Is his objective to dissuade Aragorn from participating in the battle? To excuse himself from it? To argue in favor of a different strategy? We have no idea. Any college or even high school acting coach worth their salt would tell you a character’s objective is never “to express him/herself” because that’s boring and unpersuasive, but it looks like that’s all Bloom is attempting in the clip. Yet the problem is not just him: as I mentioned before, when the screenwriters begin monkeying around with the source material and creating character moments which don’t appear to be in line with Tolkien’s text, the result is often a weak moment in the film. When coupled with an actor who doesn’t provide the underpinnings to carry the weak writing, the result is usually a bad scene and an audience left scratching its collective head.

Legolas continues as a background character in ROTK with little to do other than shoot more baddies using his apparently bottomless quiver of arrows. After the world is saved, he shows up for the party wearing the same self-confident smile he’s had for most of the last 9 hours of film. It’s almost as if he’s always thinking, “It’s good to be immortal” over and over in his mind. Bloom adequately fills the swashbuckling and Stoic role to which Jackson’s script relegated him, but we miss out on the richer character Tolkien gave us. While other actors managed to find those small moments and exploit them for the audience’s benefit, Bloom seems to have more in common with the insufferable Jedi Knights of the Star Wars prequels. He flips and flies across the landscape, never in any apparent danger of being harmed by the lesser beings around him. As a result, Legolas becomes little more than a sort of comic-book hero instead of a nuanced character with an age-long background and an uncertain future, no matter who wins the War of the Ring. We can’t expect secondary characters to deliver too much, even in a film of this magnitude; they are secondary characters, after all. But as Stanislavsky said, “There are no small roles, only small actors.” Bloom’s performance is larger than life, but unfortunately also largely devoid of emotional substance and the films are a bit poorer for it.

Master of Toons

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