- 19 Dec 18
Matrix and Lord Of The Rings star Hugo Weaving discusses the political relevance of his new adventure flick, Mortal Engines, as well as his role in Irish hit Black '47.
It seems like whenever a world is being created or destroyed, Hugo Weaving is there. Having starred in The Matrix, V For Vendetta and the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Weaving is no stranger to exploring fantastical worlds or dystopias - and in Mortal Engines, the new YA adventure produced by Peter Jackson, he gets a touch of both.
Weaving plays Valentine, a London politician - but not London as we know it. Hundreds of years after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, London is now a giant steampunk predator city on wheels, devouring everything in its path. Under Valentine's rule, London devours the remnants of other cities, separating asylum seekers from their children and disseminating false information about the government's intentions.
If this sounds like a horrific mash-up of Brexit and Trump, you wouldn't be wrong. Jackson has admitted to inserting some explicitly anti-Trump messages into the film, but Philip Reeve's source novels were written in 2001. Yet so much of the original material feels incredibly relevant, including the damning question asked by one of the characters early in the film: "How can a society so advanced be so stupid?"
"That question feels particularly extraordinary now," muses Weaving, sitting in a hotel room in London. "History is cyclical - if you're a student of history, you know that that's what history is. Things repeating themselves. But it does feel like there are some things the world is going through now that are more extreme. The notion of what the truth is, and how the truth is disseminated or perverted, is something that is particularly scary right now, in a way it hasn't been before. There have always been ways that kings or politicians or leaders lie to their people, but it's certainly easier now to discredit journalists and endorse other agencies that are far less credible, in order to sow fear and uncertainty. It's giving yourself the power to question what is truth and what are lies, so you can get away with lying. It's technically quite a brilliant thing to do, but thanks to the internet and mass media, it's affecting the world to an extent never seen before."
One of the filmıs most subtly emotional storylines involves Valentine's daughter, Katherine (Leila George), realising her father is not the benevolent and admirable leader she believed him to be. This relationship feels very relevant to a generation of young people who, in a politically divisive time, may find themselves ideologically at odds with their own parents.
"It's one of the main subjects of this story," agrees Weaving. "You have all of the young people, but particularly Katherine and Tom [played by Robert Sheehan], who are both Londoners who believe in their world. They've ingested the propaganda and the history of that world, and their journey is the unveiling of the truth. The world isn't as simple as this, and for Katherine, it's learning that your Dad is not as simple as this or as noble - in fact, he's driving your world into the abyss. He believes he's doing the right thing, but for the characters and the audience, it's about realising the sins of the parents and authority figures, and how they've failed. That's what I like most about this film: young people realising their right and need to question those in power."
Weaving was recently involved in the telling of one of Ireland's most important stories, as he played a key role in Lance Daly's Famine-set revenge western Black 47, and he's delighted to hear that it was the highest-grossing Irish film of the year.
"I'm really pleased," he says. I think people outside of Ireland don't really understand the extent to which the Famine is still part of who Irish people are. And the fact that it hadn't been represented in cinema before - the weight of that was on Lance's shoulders, and we felt that."
The idea of historical fantasy revenge films intrigues Weaving, and the Australian actor is delighted to see Indigenous Australian filmmakers embrace the genre, and tackle the country's history of anti-Aboriginal racism.
"I'm interested in the idea of historical fantasy revenge - Inglourious Basterds, for example, is a classic fantasy revenge. It somehow shines a light on history in a novel way, and you can send up painful details and realities in a new way - but you also get something back. The revenge plays out as fantasy onscreen, and that can be very empowering for people who have been destroyed or downtrodden or oppressed. There have been a few fantasy revenge films that have come out from Indigenous and Aboriginal filmmakers recently, and I think they're really interesting."
Given Weaving's extensive filmography, it's impossible to pick one stand-out film, but he is immensely proud of 1994's Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert; a movie that tackled gender subversion long before RuPaul's Drag Race hit the mainstream. He sees links between the political undertones of drag, and the social messages of Mortal Engines.
"I knew of RuPaul because he was a singer, and it's wonderful to know that drag and the humour and clowning of drag has been so embraced around the world," enthuses Weaving. "It was a great joy to go into that world for the first time and to understand the political element of drag. The best drag artists I met were really smart, artistic, sharply political people. Drag artists are like court jesters; they're the wisest people in the kingdom, because they're the ones allowed to mock the king. There's a great glamour and wit about it, but the theatricality is so extreme that it's beautiful and extraordinary and unreal. And as unreal creatures, they can say things which are unspoken."
Mortal Engines is in cinemas now.