Film: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Directed By: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage
First of all, a word to the naysayers: “Desolation of Smaug” refers to the area around Erebor which has been smote by the dragon. It doesn’t, contrary to apparently popular belief, refer to his inevitable downfall, so don’t have a moment when he’s still alive at the end of this film. It’s been twelve months since Peter Jackson revisited Middle-earth with An Unexpected Journey and now that the novelty has worn off, proper stock can be taken of the film. It certainly didn’t endear everyone – much was made of the leaden pace, one-note [invented] villain, and over-reliance on special effects after the sweeping naturalism of Lord of the Rings. I myself, predictably, loved it, but I’m not above acknowledging that the film has issues. The Desolation of Smaug has a lot to prove against this background, with the general call seeming to be for more action and fewer songs (you’re all spoilsports). In this regard the film delivers amply – it’s an exhilarating, often terrific blockbuster, but it too has more than its share of issues. Annoyingly, a lot of this has to do with its departures from the source material.
The story picks up almost exactly where the last film left off. After a brief framing sequence, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and the company of dwarves press on towards Erebor in their quest to reclaim the dwarvish homeland. They must first make their way through Mirkwood, encountering shapeshifting bear Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) and the Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace) before emerging at Laketown, home of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) deals with an emerging threat at the fortress of Dol Guldur.
The first thing that struck me after seeing this film was quite how much An Unexpected Journey had suffered from the decision to split the films into three. The Dol Guldur segment illustrates this more than most, as it felt unfinished in the last one and here pops up only briefly as an explanation for Gandalf’s whereabouts. It’s unfortunate, as taken on the whole it’s a well-evoked representation of the growing evil in Middle-earth, but the split robs it of continuity and urgency. Indeed, TDoS is in many ways more efficient than its predecessor but it tends to skim over certain events and completely overdo others. The reckless disregard for the source material amplifies this by wasting certain characters (blink and you’ll miss Beorn) and replacing atmosphere with spectacle. The Elvenking’s halls are gorgeously realised, but Mirkwood itself is a huge disappointment. The forest is described as choking and claustrophobic, a nightmarish enclave of twisted trees and black shadows but we see almost none of that here. Bilbo does get to stick his head above the parapet and see the butterflies, but the opportunity to exploit Mirkwood’s evil, drawing parallels between its murky confines and the growing darkness throughout Middle-earth, is wasted. This might have been used to mirror the tendencies surfacing in certain characters but more importantly, to illustrate exactly why the threat in Dol Guldur is so great it has lured Gandalf away.
There are other notable issues with the film beyond its structure. The effects, for example, are frequently terrible and leave one yearning for the detail and utter immersion of LotR. Further, in perhaps the most unforgiveable move, a number of scenes are direct rehashes of that trilogy and specifically The Fellowship of the Ring. The opening scene with Thorin in Bree recreates the hobbits meeting Aragorn in Fellowship, while a later scene between Tauriel and Kili recalls Arwen’s rescuing Frodo from the Ringwraiths. I enjoyed the nods to LotR in the last film as they felt warm and affectionate, but here they just feel lazy. In Tauriel’s case, it feeds into a wider issue with her presentation. I loved Tauriel, both as a character and as a statement (you can, quite simply, fuck off if you don’t see the point of a capable female character in the midst of Tolkien’s sausage fest), but this scene threatens to undo the writers’ good intentions. The fact it’s the product of reshoots demanded by the studio makes it all the more inert. Evangeline Lily signed on under the explicit understanding that there would be no love triangle and both she and the writers go to great effort to downplay any such notions. Lily’s performance is easily one of the best in the film – shrewd and straight-talking, she looks perplexed when Thranduil suggests Legolas may have feelings for her and instead infuses Tauriel with a considerate mind and profound sense of spirit that sets her far apart from her fellow Elves. The added scene smacks of clear contrivance for film three, and does a great disservice to Lily’s thoughtful portrayal.
Now, all this notwithstanding, there is a lot to celebrate in TDoS. In fact, the film is so often brilliant that it tends to make the flaws more glaring. It’s faster in pace and more dextrous with its action scenes, and it transforms some of the more curious moments (such as the barrel sequence) into a hugely entertaining, rip-roaring setpiece. The easily bored who complained about the last one should have no such qualms here, and with the exception of a hugely overblown final half hour the film never feels bloated or messy. Its best attribute, as with last time out, is the cast. Jackson and his team have cast The Hobbit impeccably and several newcomers here stand out for particular attention. Orlando Bloom slips back into the role of Legolas with ease, while Lee Pace positively owns his father Thranduil, Elvenking extraordinaire and Regina George of Middle-earth. Luke Evans is fantastic as Bard, whose enhanced screen time is actually one of the finer departures from the book. Bard has a key role to play in later events but comes across as loose and distant on paper. In the film however, the writers introduce us to his family and township proper, rooting and contextualising his courage and heroism. The screenplay’s characterisation is very strong throughout – it advances the encroaching darkness within Thorin and Bilbo very well, and both Armitage and Freeman are excellent. Thorin’s transformation in particular is striking, obsessiveness and manipulative greed gnawing away at the gruffer, colder presence of the previous film. Bilbo meanwhile must deal with the insidious influence of the Ring, and it is a credit to both Freeman and the writers that its power is felt keenly on several occasions without it ever being exploited.
However, the key character for this film was always going to be Smaug. A well-etched antagonist is vital in any narrative, but when your villain is a talking dragon extra care must be taken. Benedict Cumberbatch would be the first to tell you that he did a lot more than simply voice this creature – he helped create him for screen, and the results are spectacular. Smaug is a vast, hulking presence, as loquacious as he is sinister, at once destructive and majestic. When he loses his cool (quite literally), he dominates the piece, breathing searing conviction into every word of dread used to describe him. It is perhaps a slight misfortune that the decidedly overwrought ending doesn’t show us more of him, but it’s telling that breathtakingly climactic final scene evinced near-riotous gasps of anticipation in my screening.
Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy may never truly hit the heights of its illustrious predecessor, but The Desolation of Smaug advances it as a worthy successor in its own right. Even amidst its myriad of flaws, the makers’ affection for Tolkien’s world and the heart at the centre of his story remains clear. This is by far a more satisfying film than its predecessor – frustrating, yes, and contentious in its treatment of the text, but for action, thrills, and sheer entertainment it does extremely well. It’s perhaps not the spectacle Middle-earth deserves in the long run, but definitely the one it needed right now. Try not to be such a cynic (rich coming from me, I know) and go in with an open mind.