Hugo Weaving describes his Mortal Engines character, Thaddeus Valentine, as a “Romantic hero.” That may come as something of a surprise given that Valentine is the film’s primary antagonist, but the layers and contradictions inherent in the character are why Weaving is perfect for the job.
Best known for his roles in the Wachowski sisters’ oeuvre (The Matrix, V for Vendetta, Cloud Atlas) as well as blockbuster films like The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Captain America: The First Avenger, Weaving has carved out a niche for himself playing complicated men, and bad guys in particular. In other words, Valentine, who is equal parts leader, adventurer, archaeologist, pirate, politician, father, and villain in Mortal Engines’ post-apocalyptic London, fits the Weaving bill.
“As an actor, that’s what I’m always interested in: contradictions and hidden aspects of the character that may be there, but may not be necessarily presented to the world,” Weaving tells Polygon, as to the distinct facets of Valentine’s character. “My fear was that perhaps they weren’t credibly one person, even though I thought they could be, and they should be, absolutely. That was the challenge that, to me, was really the attractive thing. How can you have a Romantic hero who, by the end of the film, is really the prime antagonist and is someone who’s driving the world as people know it to the brink of destruction?”
Finding Valentine’s heart was further complicated by his positioning as the film’s big bad, whereas, in Philip Reeve’s book, Mayor Magnus Crome (played in the film by Patrick Malahide) had been the ultimate driving force behind London’s path towards destruction. The axis around which the film turns, as such, is Valentine’s determination to destroy the wall separating the traction cities from the static settlements, and ensure London’s survival through the consumption of the cities (and lives) on the other side.
It’s a grim plan, but one that stems from Valentine’s determination that the city he lives in should survive. Though Valentine’s struggle with the city’s bureaucracy is still tangible in the film (and places him more squarely in literary tradition of the Romantic hero, alongside characters like Victor Frankenstein and Captain Ahab), more of the clash between Valentine and Crome was left on the cutting room floor.
“You got a very strong sense that Crome was someone who wanted to take London back to England, which is literally a sort of Brexit reference, I guess,” Weaving notes, of the cut footage. “He is very much an old school man, and Valentine is very much the man who wants to move forward, who can see that the world in which they’re in is dying and he really, we really need to change it.”
“In his own mind, I think [Valentine] thinks he’s justified,” adds Philippa Boyens, who wrote the screenplay with Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson. “It’s that arrogance that can make men even more dangerous than, say, someone who’s narcissistic or psychopathic. Men of unbridled self-righteous belief can often be far more dangerous. Fran Walsh put it this way — she said, ‘You know, if you give the codes to the bomb to a man of unbridled ambition, he will use them.’”
To wit, a pivotal scene in which Valentine seizes control of the MEDUSA superweapon had him reciting the line from the Bhagavad-Vita that Robert Oppenheimer uttered when he first saw what the nuclear bomb he had created was capable of: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
“I thought, if this is a man who can say that, but also care for his daughter, or be seen to care for his daughter, and who, when we first meet him, he’s this romantic figure on the prow of a ship, like some sort of dashing pirate figure, you’ve got to be able to create a character that can both be contained and realized in a real way,” Weaving explains.
Unfortunately, like the bulk of Valentine’s push against Crome, the line was ultimately cut, but it’s a loss that, despite everything (“I always want more; I always love complexity in characterization, so I will always be arguing for complexity rather than for streamlining”), Weaving is quick to place within the larger scope of the film: “There’s a function that Valentine serves, and I understand the function of character as well. I can’t play that, I have to play the character. [...] But you have to retain a truth, even within a larger style. It’s just an understanding that you’re in something rather than pushing into that thing.”
There’s a matter-of-fact-ness to the explanation that falls in line with Weaving’s previous less-than-glowing comments on working on blockbusters, which pose an entirely different kind of challenge. “It’s not so much the franchise itself,” he says, qualifying his remarks, “it’s more that, sometimes, in what can be the sort of impersonal, poorly communicated world of the big, big studio piece, you sometimes feel like the creative pleasure and the interaction you have with other people on a really large film can become a bit depersonalized.”
(Notably, though the Captain America villain Red Skull returns in Avengers: Infinity War, it’s not Weaving behind the red, skeletal face — “It wasn’t, in the end, a difficult decision,” the actor says, remaining cryptic. “It was just something that was just a, ‘No, can’t go there.’”)
Wellington, however, where Mortal Engines was made (as well as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies), has “a very familial atmosphere,” hence Weaving’s return. “They have a particular process which is idiosyncratic and it’s ever-changing. I think to work with Pete and Christian [Rivers] and Fran and Phil and that mob, you need to be always prepared to let things go and jump into a different pond each day if that’s required,” Weaving explains. “It’s very good for you to work like that. Not all the time, but I’m very fortunate to be able to do lots of different things, and I think I’d always like to keep it like that.”
As for whether or not that means we may see Valentine again, Weaving is a little more cryptic, leaving it at a simple: “We’ll see.”