Monday, June 8, 2015

The Lord of the Rings Performance Review Series: Aragorn

Aragorn: The character of Aragorn Elessar understandably got a lot of “extra” attention from Peter Jackson in his film trilogy. Tolkien himself admitted to providing less of the future king’s story in the book than he was comfortable with, and his beautiful Tale of Aragorn and Arwen was the appendicular way of resolving this issue. In fact, Tolkien admitted in his letters that, as he was writing the introduction of Aragorn to the hobbits in Bree, he had at that time “no more idea than [the hobbits] had of who Strider was,” and he had begun to despair of living long enough to find out. The future ruler of the Reunited Kingdom of Arnor and Gondor was, truth be told, originally conceived as a hobbit named Trotter which, along with Bombadil’s recent cameo, lends some understanding to researchers of just how puerile Tolkien’s magnum opus had started out.

It is Aragorn’s revelations to the hobbits in the darkened corners of the Prancing Pony, however, where the real dangers facing them first become unveiled, and it also where we begin to see the first shoots of a long and branching maturation process. Viggo Mortensen, in his role as the brooding Strider, did not face such difficulties on the film set: with Jackson’s nightmarish Black Riders having pursued our hobbit heroes across the length and breadth of the Shire before we even make it to Bree, that particular challenge was removed for him as an actor. His job, instead, was to jump straight into the role Tolkien eventually gave the character – as a guide and sagely protector of the hobbits and their precious cargo. On the acting front, Mortensen was required to initiate the character’s extensive dramatic arc and somehow sustain that development, scene by scene, throughout all three films. This is a Herculean task which requires careful management from both the actor and the director, and both fulfill their roles wonderfully.

In Jackson’s films, we are introduced to Aragorn chiefly as a woodcrafty Ranger who shows up just in the nick of time to save the hobbits from a nighttime raid on their rooms at the Prancing Pony. At the Council of the Elrond, Legolas reveals him as heir to the throne of Gondor, mightiest of mortal kingdoms and the last vestige of downfallen Numenor. Despite the revelations, Mortensen does an excellent job showing the audience his character’s nature: one of humility, caution, wisdom, and meekness (used properly, “meekness” refers to reticence in the use of one’s strength). These are very good qualities in a leader, but Aragorn views himself as cursed down the long line from father to son due to his ancestor’s weakness in refusing to destroy Sauron’s Ring some 3,000 years earlier and so is hesitant to accept his destiny. Morentsen is given many opportunities to show us Aragorn’s inner conflict and he handles it deftly, never wandering into Macbeth territory, which would be the temptation for most actors. His job in this sense is made all the more challenging due simply to the vast expanse of film time he needs to occupy, but Mortensen succeeds in keeping his experiences relatable for the audience through measured introspection without ever becoming taciturn.

Some critics have suggested Mortensen (and Jackson, by extension) made Aragorn too much of a reluctant warrior. This argument may carry some weight if each film is viewed independently, but of course that was never Jackson’s intent: the trilogy was filmed as a whole and meant to be viewed as a whole. Mortensen’s and Jackson’s gradual unraveling of Aragorn’s mental and emotional struggle has a critical and powerful effect once the thread is finally unwound in ROTK. By setting up the eventual conquest of Aragorn’s inner demons through the first two films, we see the character’s evolution into the soon-to-be King of Gondor and leader of all Free Peoples. The most significant part of this process occurs during the Battle of Helm’s Deep. In fact, one could easily posit the entire battle was used as a set piece by Jackson for the development of Aragorn as a leader, both militarily and emotionally. We see the character exhibit his leadership abilities prior to the battle, as he recognizes the purpose of Saruman’s invasion (which Theoden in the films had not yet pondered), in his rebuke to Legolas regarding the hopelessness of the battle ahead, and in his relation to the son of the slain Hama on the walls of the Hornburg. We see more development during the fighting itself as Aragorn takes a crucial hand in the design and execution of various tactics. Finally, near the end of the battle, we see Aragorn’s devotion to the men he leads (“They still defend it! They have died defending it!”) as Theoden despairs and appears prepared to surrender to death. All of this is verified early in ROTK when Theoden tells his niece, “It was not Theodeon of Rohan who led our people to victory.” Mortensen’s triumph throughout all of these multiple minutes of cinematic grandeur is to never become grand himself: the character must retain its humility if it is ever to earn the respect, admiration, and love of the audience it deserves. What we are treated to is the slow but critical development of a character who recognizes his own shortcomings but gradually overcomes them through love for his friends and a series of personal trials which prove his mettle both on and off the battlefield.

The impact of all this, once Jackson’s Aragorn finally decides to take up the mantle assigned to him by fate, is akin to an excellent boxer who has been boxing well for years only to discover he’s had one arm tied behind his back the whole time. We, the audience, instinctively know he will be twice as good a fighter with both arms at his disposal, so the removal of the mental barriers to Aragorn’s greatness has the same effect: the audience feels a thrill of hope at the new asset the good guys have obtained.

And yet, even following Aragorn’s transformation into the leader he was meant to be, Mortensen keeps the character grounded. There are several moments like this throughout the trilogy, but the little breath he takes after being crowned king and before turning to present himself to the adoring throngs in Minas Tirith is a fantastic mini-moment which perfectly encapsulates Aragorn and everything he’s about. In those two seconds we see the shift from beleaguered defender of the free world to total victor and leader of that same world – a different fight with its own set of challenges. Mortensen accomplishes this while simultaneously giving us another of his private glimpses into Aragorn’s mindset where humility and a servant’s heart prevail. Similar moments are peppered throughout the trilogy, such as Aragorn’s seat-shifting at the Council of Elrond after Boromir suggests Gondor alone is responsible for holding the armies of Mordor at bay – his decision to not speak out regarding Boromir’s ignorance is telling (this doesn’t happen in the book). His decision to kneel before Theoden in TTT is another such moment, as is his decision face impossible odds in battle in order to give Frodo the precious seconds her needs to escape Saruman’s orcs beneath Amon Hen. The reaction of several audiences in theatres I experienced (having watched FOTR in the theatre eight times in 2001-2002) was an assumption Mortensen’s little sword salute prior to engaging the orcs was some kind of “badass” moment as he prepares to open a can (as they say) and liberally spread the contents. Those familiar with Aragorn, however, understood this little moment to mean the character was surrendering himself to death, if needed, in order to allow the Ring-bearer the chance to carry on his Quest. One could criticize Jackson for failing to make this more clear because an audience’s interpretation (or misinterpretation, when writ large) would have to be laid at the feet of the director and no one else. But in this case the moment was, in my opinion, very well executed and the misunderstanding may point more to a cultural difference than any failure of the production staff. Incidentally, this kind of thing is – in more than a few cases – the reason why some things end up the way they do in movies: there is often a fear or concern the audience will misinterpret some event on-screen, and many a production staff has worked themselves into knots trying to avoid such incidents.

Several more posts could easily be written dissecting the details of Mortensen’s scenes with Liv Tyler. For the purposes of this discussion, it is worth focusing on the love story and how Mortensen delivers a genuine performance where we see his absolute devotion to Arwen as well as the pain he bears in his time apart from her. It is critical, especially for modern audiences, to see the source of the character’s motivations, for only the most powerful of emotions could inspire someone to such great feats. Mortensen’s execution is inspired indeed as we see several love scenes between the pair, each with its own flavoring and purpose in the larger plotline. The actor is believable in every moment and therefore never gives his audience cause to chuckle while at the same time creating a dramatic arc with which every audience member can relate, despite the fact none of us has ever been in love with an Elf. The depth of love is the article of importance here, and Mortensen allows it to drive every scene in varying degrees.

Overall, the character of Aragorn in the film trilogy is a tremendously effective merger between the actor and the director. Jackson allows Mortensen to summarize years of spiritual, physical, and emotional toil in small, often wordless moments (again, the best acting happens when you’re not delivering lines), and Mortensen turns each of those moments into little gems for his audiences to finger and mull over time and time again.

Master of Toons

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