Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Lord of the Rings Films Performance Review Series: Faramir

Faramir: With the Fellowship out of the way, let us advance to examining the work of some of the more secondary and tertiary characters in the films, beginning with the not-quite-royal family of Gondor.

Right from the off I have to point out Peter Jackson did us all a massive disservice by jacking around with this character in his films: probably the only figure more grotesquely distorted from book to film was Frodo himself, but Faramir is a very close second. I refer, of course, to the ridiculous trek to Osgiliath which Jackson’s Faramir forces Frodo and Sam to make with the ultimate intent of turning the hobbits and the Ring over to his father, the Steward of Gondor. Yet this is no simplistic argument of, “Oh, that never happened in the book so it’s automatically bad.” It is very bad, but not just because that specific series of events never occurred in the source material. In fact, much if not most of the scenes we see in the films never occur in the book, but they fit its spirit – and this is not one of those moments.

The reason Faramir’s little jaunt to Osgiliath is such a travesty is because it forces the movie Faramir to make a set of decisions the book Faramir does not which diminishes the man’s character. Faramir is tempted, certainly, to seize the Ring. Not unlike Aragorn, Galadriel, and plenty of other individuals throughout the epic, the temptation for Faramir is great and is only overcome by a tremendous act of will and commitment to something greater than himself. Jackson gives us a series of flashbacks involving Faramir, Boromir, and Denethor to better establish the relationships between them and further explain how each comes to make the choices he does. Unlike many of Jackson’s extra-Tolkien inventions, the scene at Osgiliath when Denethor commissions Boromir to journey to Imladris in search of Isildur’s Bane is an excellent one where we see the chief motivations for each character. All of these behind-the-scene pressures certainly increase the temptation for Movie Faramir to do what Jackson has him do, but it is precisely because of those pressures and Book Faramir’s proper judgment against the temptation that we should admire him. By having Movie Faramir initially submit to those temptations, Jackson changes the nature of Book Faramir significantly.

The primary reason for these literary gyrations, of course, was to put Frodo and Sam into a dangerous situation and create some extra drama as we near the end of the second of three films. Since it was a foregone conclusion TTT would not end as the book does with Frodo’s encounter with Shelob and Sam’s helplessness outside the Tower of Cirith Ungol, quite possibly the greatest literary cliffhanger of all time, it became necessary to create circumstances which would lead to something comparable. In one sense, having Frodo come within a split second of being carried off by a Nazgul is a great substitute: it shows Frodo’s weakening will, the greater presence and threat of Sauron’s emissaries, and the narrow escape the entire world has based not on the supposed hero (Frodo), but rather on Samwise (the “half-wit”) who is fortunate enough to not trip over his own feet on the way up to stairs to rescue his master. This, in and of itself, is not bad. Unfortunately, the gymnastics needed to get us to this point involve a nearly wholesale degradation of Faramir’s noble spirit, to say nothing of the manner in which Sam blurts out the secret of the Ring in front of no less than a dozen Gondorians in broad daylight – another absurd moment unique to the film which makes me cringe every time it comes up.

But enough about Jackson: this article is supposed to be about Faramir and, specifically David Wenham, the Prince of the Nasal Proboscis (I say this with pride, being a member of the same clan. Karl Malden is our king, in case you were wondering). Wenham is fantastic as Faramir and, quite apart from very much looking like he really could be Sean Bean’s brother, he gives us delicious insight into this man with virtually no screen-time, at least as compared to many of his cast-mates.

Like Viggo Mortensen, Wenham invests his character with a wonderful sense of loyalty, decency, duty, and honor which drives his actions throughout the films. He never tries too hard to make Faramir appear emotionally torn or confused even though the audience knows he is and feels pity for him. Once again, the successful actor lets the story do the talking: with ample flashbacks to guide us through his complicated family life, Wenham knows he doesn’t need to exert himself on the surface and instead lets the tale tell itself. He comes across as measured, just, thoughtful, gentle, and meek. Yet there is no sign of weakness about Wenham’s Faramir – to the contrary he is clearly a very capable warrior, but he is a soldier strictly out of necessity. He deals sternly and harshly (but not cruelly) with Gollum and all of Gondor’s enemies, but also shows himself very capable of patience, restraint, and mercy. All of this comes through Wenham’s portrayal beautifully, despite having few opportunities at his disposal.

Probably Wenham’s greatest triumph in the films is his interactions with Denethor, Faramir’s father. It would be a terrific challenge for any actor to successfully handle his character’s descent into a suicidal melancholy within such a small space of screen-time, but Wenham manages it. By once again allowing the story itself to do most of the work, Wenham shows us a man whose spirit is crushed into despair and willing to ride to his own death without ever turning comical. The temptation for the lesser actor would be to unleash every sort of emotion possible to justify this mental arc, but the truth is it isn’t needed: by measuring his reactions to Denethor’s cruel promptings, Wenham’s Faramir does not descend into suicidal madness (like his father), but rather comes to the simple and rational (but hardly proper) conclusion that his death would be preferable to living with no mother and no brother, but only with the father who apparently despises him. His march toward death is calculating and precise, with a determined and resigned air which makes the character simultaneously chilling and tragic. By keeping his emoting under control and letting the fact his character is willingly riding out to die carry the load for him, Wenham paints a rich and compelling tapestry for us to experience and weep for.

One can and should be forgiven if they have mixed feelings about Faramir: possibly disliking him in TTT but coming to pity him in ROTK. Those unfamiliar with the book might be especially confused. Despite Jackson’s insatiable desire for cinematic grandiosity, however, Wenham succeeds in presenting us with a Faramir that possesses an appropriate mixture of human nuances. The actor keeps a tight grip on his emotions, which allows the story to work itself in the minds of the audience instead of one person trying to drive it or “make the most” of his limited time on-screen. The result is a fully believable character, warts and all (especially in Jackson’s films), with whom we can relate as he tries to navigate the minefields of familial and political turmoil. Wenham understands the fact he’s walking around in plate armor and wielding a broadsword has no relevance to his real, spiritual battle between his rational mind (what’s best for Gondor today) and his heart (what’s right for eternity is really what’s best for Gondor – now and always). This truth is what draws the audience to Wenham and brings us to love Faramir for who he is.

Master of Toons

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