Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Lord of the Rings Films Performance Review Series: Boromir

Boromir: Sean Bean sets aside his usual Scottish accent to provide us with a typically strong performance as the heir-apparent to the Steward’s “throne” of Gondor. Throughout his portrayal and through the occasional flashback, we are treated to an excellent tapestry of a complex and nuanced character who is torn in mind and heart over the best course of action for his people. Bean’s extensive resume and familiarity with classical stage work is once again the key to his powerful delivery, and his critical interaction with the Ring is one of the primary elements driving the FOTR film.
At first glance, Bean’s performance may seem over-the-top or perhaps a bit bipolar – from the very beginning we see him address Aragorn in a friendly manner and hold the shards of Narsil with their proper reverence, only to suddenly see his face turn dour as he declares the relics “nothing more than a broken heirloom,” before ignominiously discarding them and stumping off. Later, we see Boromir bravely battle through the Mines of Moria only to lose heart in the woods of Lothlorien. Finally, there’s the famous back-and-forth with Frodo that nearly ends in his slaying of the Ring-bearer, but of course culminates in his own untimely death. This seesaw of emotions, purposes, and tactics could easily become wearisome or confusing for an audience and, left in the hands of a less gifted actor, it may well have done. But Bean guides us through each of these moments with skill, and we are left to ponder the implications of the lessons Tolkien bequeaths to us through the character.

In the first example, we are crucially introduced to Boromir as he explores Rivendell, clearly feeling somewhat out of place there. His encounter with Aragorn and Narsil is used as our first glimpse of this proud, strong-willed Man of the South, and the seemingly abrupt turn in emotions we witness is an important insight into the man’s character. Our first impression is one of a polite person with a proper amount of respect for history (at least his own country’s history, however distant). Boromir’s awe turns to something resembling scorn, however, and it may not immediately be clear why, but at this point we become aware of competing forces within this man, and we’re interested to learn more. The genesis, of course, is Boromir’s documented desire to rule Gondor as its rightful king, as in the Appendices he challenges Denethor, asking how many generations must pass before the Stewards (and himself, by extension) should be hailed as monarchs. His father rightly responds that, in realms of lesser lineage, perhaps only a few lives of Men would be sufficient for such a change of course, but in the remnants of Numenor no passage of time would do. We get a taste of this attitude in Bean’s first moments on-screen as he tosses Narsil aside, but we also saw his appreciation for what it represents. The contrast with Aragorn’s gentle replacement of the relic to its proper place, of course, tells us something about Aragorn too, setting his reverence against Boromir’s latent ambition. Another minute but important function of this scene is to hint at what might be called “fantasy racism,” or the fact Boromir occasionally fails to hide his disdain or (at the least) distrust of the other free races in Middle-earth. This is visible by his first words to Aragorn (“You are no Elf”) and he subsequent extension of polite greeting to him (“Then we are here on common purpose, friend”), but later we get the impression his words are borne at least partially out of relief at finding someone like himself in this strange place. One finds more examples of this in the book than in the films (“For themselves they may be right, these Elves and Half-Elves and wizards … But each to his own kind”), but Bean and Jackson work to give us glimpses of it along the way. It is instructive to look back once one understands all of this to observe Bean’s acting as his character’s mind works through these thoughts and emotions: his facial expressions may not seem very important without this deeper understanding, but once seen in light of the full story, those moments become full with meaning.

We see more of Boromir’s character throughout the Council of Elrond as well. It is there the hopelessness which plagues Boromir and allows to Ring to work its will first becomes apparent, but we also begin to see some of the arrogance he carries as well. His declaration that the whole of the free world is maintained “through the blood of [my] people while your lands kept safe” is as close to an insult as the outnumbered Boromir might be willing to muster under the circumstances, but the implication is obvious. One might also be inclined to see additional shadows of racial superiority here, though that is less clear. From there we get the scene on the slopes of Caradhras where Boromor is tempted by the Ring directly which, although not in the book, nonetheless brings a sense of danger and urgency to the film as the Fellowship struggles against natural forces for the time being. Boromir plays a valiant role throughout the adventure in Moria, and this is crucial as we see this Man as a strong and doughty warrior – a true asset to those on his side – which makes his wavering hope and susceptibility to the Ring’s wiles all the more tragic.

While the group passes through Lothlorien, we witness a brief scene with Aragorn which finally explains Boromir’s Hamlet-esque mental tug-of-war. It helps to clear up some of the earlier ambiguities and also treats us to some admirable moments of excellent acting. I admit I had originally thought Bean’s performance to be overdone – trying too hard to show us a mind torn between options – but I’ve since determined that judgment to be in error. The extent of Boromir’s mental and spiritual torment must be sufficient to properly set up his later (assumed) willingness to murder Frodo and steal the Ring from him, and it would take some serious force to set those actions in motion. Boromir may be an arrogant prick at times, but he is also well-meaning, noble-hearted, and a man of his word. To place the weights entirely on one side of the scale robs the character of its nuance as well as its tragic elements and diminishes the drama considerably as a result. We must, therefore, periodically see the character in a state of substantial mental torment as he struggles with what feels right and what seems right under the circumstances. Specifically, to struggle and fight on in pursuit of the Quest (which he later decries as “Folly!”), or to take the route that seems more likely to reach his goal within his lifetime: to seize the Ring – naturally with only the best intentions in mind – and use it against the Enemy. Such has been the downfall of many Men before him: keeping their sights set only on their own times and not considering how the quick answer is often not the best, and Boromir falls prey to this gambit too.

All of these mental gymnastics reach their apex on the slopes of Amon Hen, as Boromir commits his great sin but atones for it in short order by giving his life to protect Merry and Pippin. Typical of a classical actor with more than his share of Shakespeare under his belt, Bean delivers a riveting death scene where, in soul-crushing slow motion, we watch Boromir fall to Saruman’s Orcs. Bean, together with Jackson’s camera and Howard Shore’s orchestra, provides an incredible tapestry of grief, valor, suffering, determination, pain, and redemption from one shot to the next. At the end of it all, Boromir could still despair and nearly does as he predicts (wrongly, thankfully) that his city will come “to ruin” and “the world of Men will fall.” Yet, at the very last, we see the Man’s noblest qualities finally win out as he turns to Aragorn in his last hope. Whether an actor’s intuition or the director’s instruction, Bean suddenly seizes Aragorn’s doublet, clearly a non-verbal way of saying, “You had better do something about this, bud.” Aragorn, still finding his way through his own mental murkiness, offers a resolved (if slightly lawerly) vow that he will not let this come to pass. Boromir, now singularly and properly focused on the protection and survival of his countrymen, is able to pass from this life while essentially swearing fealty to the king-to-be; an important acknowledgement from the Steward’s heir which was never forthcoming prior to this moment.

In Fangorn Forest some days later, Gandalf marvels as he lays out the Providential nature of the tragedy of Boromir’s death and its necessity in bringing the wrath of the Ents to bear against Isengard. We are left to marvel at the power and dignity Bean brings to his character and the vital role it plays in the evolution of the full story. Once again, a character’s interaction with Sauron’s Ring conveys to the audience the nature of the Enemy and, by logical extension, the nature of what is at stake in this War. We see how strength of limb is of little use in what is ultimately a spiritual conflict and how pride and ambition can corrupt even the noblest among us. Through his performance as Boromir, Bean gives us shining moments of brilliance which, along with the source material, be mined many times over to the enlightenment of us all.

Master of Toons

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