It’s a week since I watched TH: BOTFA for one last time, and a review is overdue. For the previous instalments of TH I had shied away from reviews – it seemed to me as if I simply wasn’t qualified to review it. I am, after all, a late-comer to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and although I am a fan of the LotR-trilogy, I was never deeply invested in it. But with BOTFA things have changed. Not only do I feel sufficiently knowledgable about the genesis of the film(s)
thanks to Peter Jackson’s collected vlogs and the conclusive promo action but as a fan of a particular leading actor yeah, guess who *duh* I feel I can chime in. Because this is *his* film. It’s all about Thorin.
Alas, the review has taken so long mostly because I had difficulties with the ending of the film. Not so much with the
– do I still have to warn “SPOILERS” – lachrymose demise of the King under the mountain, that was, after all, long-expected. But the film left me slightly stranded. (More about that later). And there was the usual postpartum depression at having to say good-bye to a trilogy that had for so long been a part of my virtual life.
But needs must, and especially so as there is much to praise about this film in terms of Richard Armitage’s acting, even if the film otherwise did not fulfill all of my expectations. It had been hyped so much in the previews and the first initial European pro-reviews prior to the in my territory release – I was set up to be blown out of my seat. That did not quite happen.
Serves me right for believing every over-enthusiastic verdict that the actors gave on the promo tour. Sure, they are too close to the product to be objective about it.
But neither was I infuriated, offended or disappointed. It was just that it did not *quite* come up to the build-up of Armitage et al. There was, imo, not really enough meat in it. It was basically a three-scene movie: the destruction of Lake-town, the madness of King Thorin and the Battle of the Five Armies. While the previous two instalments spanned days or weeks of action, this film seemed to be much more contained in terms of time span. In hindsight, I wish Jackson had cut the action-packed DOS at an earlier stage – maybe before the dragon is defeated and swings off towards Lake-town to wreak revenge. It might have also given us a greater contradiction/character journey for Thorin who was thoroughly the “mad king” in BOTFA… Mind you, Jackson easily filled his 2:20 hours with those three “stories”, and there was no moment of boredom in it. The hidden shadow of my Y-chromosome thoroughly enjoyed the 45 minutes of battle (so much for gender-specific viewing!) while the XX happily revelled in the emotion of the climactic death scene. It was still a film that I hugely enjoyed.
It’s in the Eyes
And the reason for that enjoyment is mainly Richard Armitage’s congenial portrayal of Thorin. If anybody were in doubt over the handsome Brit’s acting chops, his turn as the mountain king certainly would have wiped away the last of the qualms. Considering that for half of the film he was not required to impress with the physical acting he is (also) renowned for, and was furthermore impeded by heavy prosthetics, Armitage proves himself to be a master at acting with his eyes. His portrayal of a dwarf succumbing to madness is convincing from the get-go. And it’s all in the eyes, much of that not choice but due to practicality, seeing that his face was covered in beard and prosthetics
and occasionally a rather head-band-y crown. A lesser actor might have failed this challenge. Not so Armitage. Many close-ups give opportunity for examining the eyes, or rather Armitage’s acting with his eyes: Suspicion manifests itself in the narrowing of his eyes, the look to the side. Looking down, he evokes inquisitiveness, and with his eyes big and wide, he signals astonishment. The character-defining dragon sickness comes across most effectively when Armitage is seen looking up from under his brows and his bright, pronounced whites of his eyes show. He seems to almost bore his gaze into Bilbo’s soul. It burns. Seeing that fantasy films apparently do not have much luck with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, could we please invent a new awards category for acting with eyes, only? Armitage certainly deserves an Oscar for his eye-work alone.
On the note of awards subcategories: Special mention here to the hair. Whoever directed that wind-machine should be given a medal. L’Oréal Erebor in full swing, literally! Combined with some choice slo-mo, for instance the phalanx of the dwarves storming the battlefield, this made for delicious viewing! Or even more so in the scene where the newly
recovered re-born Thorin, like Phoenix from the ashes, emerges from the golden mist of the mountain, striding towards his fellow dwarves. Ok, this is less about the hair than about the evocative symbolism of the scene: Slowly, the figure of the King manifests itself – from a wisp, to a shadow, until his dark silhouette, hair flowing, becomes discernible. These are glorious visuals: pretty wolf-whistle-worthy Thorin in his gear minus silly crown and OTT bison cloak, emerging from the golden glow. Did anyone else have a déja-vu here, of the visual representation of Sauron as a dark humanoid silhouette in front of yellow-orange flames?
I was particularly awed by the first climax of the film when Thorin finally gets a grip on his own madness. In a scene that feels really long but probably only lasts less than a minute, we see a whole range of emotions reflected on Thorin’s face – anger, fury, greed, madness, giving way to doubt, fear, worry, then thoughtfulness, disbelief, recognition, and finally culminating in renewed resolve, humility, honour and pride. There is a Shakespearean feel to this scene, I think – and Armitage has to hold this scene all on his own, there is no other actor there to bounce his energy, or to take the responsibility of the scene away for even a second. It is like the big monologue in a play, the pivotal scene where the main character finally reaches the denouement of his dilemma, or maybe like a series of soliloquies from a Shakespearean drama (I am particularly thinking of Macbeth here).
Jackson directs this scene particularly well – and whoever came up with the concept (possibly Armitage himself, as he has hinted at Jackson being at a loss how to film this, and collaborating/improvising on it) struck gold, literally: Thorin, on the expanse of the golden floor in the Gallery of the Kings, is (nearly) swallowed up by his own greed, the gold is eating his soul. The CGI is suitably psychedelic, with the golden floor “liquefying” and undulating, which draws the viewer right into Thorin’s sick mind. The dramatic lighting
yeah, I know, I am obsessed with that adds further emphasis on the mad show of changing emotions on Thorin’s face. It comes from all sides, sometimes with bright highlights, sometimes warmly flickering like flames, evoking both the light of reason as well as the fires of damnation. Combined with the German angle (for an explanation what that actually means in cinematographic terms, check this old *ooof*, about mid-way through) the cinematography in this scene reminded me of early German, Expressionist film-making in such classics as Nosferatu by Friedrich Murnau (1922) or The Cabinet of Dr Caligari by Roberte Wiene (1920). Gee, sounds as if there is actually a college thesis in this… “German Expressionist Film-Making and the Oeuvre of Peter Jackson – The Orc as Nosferatu’s Grandson” Do you think I am on to something??? All of the cinematographic devices as well as Armitage’s acting make the audience “hear” the various thoughts as they are crossing Thorin’s mind face. Masterful! And theatrical: This is emoting with the face, exaggerating so that the last audience member on the cheapest seat in the back row can see what is going on in Thorin’s mind.
I loved that scene, not least because it culminates in the moment when Thorin realizes his own madness and consciously makes the decision to break free from it. The redemption that Armitage did not tire to point out in the press junket. I am intrigued to know how this was filmed exactly – did Armitage stand on that sound stage all by himself? Did someone read the voice-over to him while this was being filmed, or did he conjure up the schizophrenic voices in Thorin’s head in his imagination, letting the expressions flicker over his face?
Equally excellent is Armitage’s voice work in the film. Without it, Thorin would only be half as _____ [insert adjective of your choice]. It is simply amazing. Armitage’s voice is a pleasure at the best of times, a dark, strong baritone, smooth and suave, but boy can he crank it
up down for a sinister effect. For the trilogy, Armitage has lowered his voice by two half-tones – wine and cigarettes, Mr Armitage?? – to give Thorin’s voice more gravitas. In his maddest scenes, Thorin comes across as positively evil, with a grovelling, growling baritone going ever darker and deeper the further his madness develops. There is definite evidence that Armitage takes his clue from Benedict Cumberbatch’s voicing of the dragon. Timbre, serpent-like hissing, overemphasized enunciating of the vowels are indicators, and they are used here to connect Thorin in his afflicted state to the dragon. The corruption through the gold has the same symptoms in both dwarf and dragon. A detail – but if it wasn’t for this attention to detail, we might as well just watch a garage version of Tolkien’s works. And once again, perfectly executed by Armitage.
At the other end of the vocal spectrum is Thorin’s voice as he is confiding in and expressing his friendship to Bilbo in the scene where he accuses Bilbo of stealing the Arkenstone – only to find Bilbo holds an acorn in his hand. Yeah, Bagginshield-shippers – I can
see hear where you are coming from! From the growling, searing hot coals of the mad voice, Armitage here jumps to the wispy, soft velvet purr of confidence and persuasion. What is particularly amazing about this, is that he can switch between the two from one second to the next, as quickly as sick Thorin’s mood erratically switches from paranoia to friendship.
Let’s get physical
On to the more physical manifestations of Armitage’s acting abilities. Even though it was in the eyes in this film, there were definitely moments of masterful physical acting. And by that I do not necessarily mean the
impressive battle scenes (although I will get to them). The first time we saw Thorin on the screen, was one such example. It is the scene where Bilbo and the dwarves are looking down upon Lake-town as Smaug is wreaking havoc. Thorin, OTOH, has turned his back. We see him from behind, looking at the mountain. The gold is already calling for him, and there was something in Armitage’s acting that made it totally clear to me that Thorin was already feeling the pull of the mountain in a less than sane way. Acting with his back again?
Of course, in terms of physical acting, the show-down between Thorin and Azog was the culmination of the film. It was marked by brilliant choreography, the fight as an aggressive dance between two enemies. At the time, it made me wonder how that was filmed, once the two combatants were balancing on the shoal of ice (in the meantime we have heard from Armitage that they were balancing on a hydraulic platform.) Once again, the physical exhaustion that Armitage mentioned mainly came across in the eyes rather than his stance. He looked positively wrecked. Just as he had to, especially with the death scene looming. It predictably tore at the heart-strings and was well done, both by Armitage as well as Freeman, whose desperate clinging to composure mirrored my own. Bagginshield looming again…
As mentioned above, the 45-minute battle scene had me in thrall. Not a minute of boredom there. The CGI was great (you can see how technology has advanced in the decade since LotR) and it helped that Jackson showed the battle from all angles, even with a focus on Thorin. He is the pivot on whom the outcome of the battle depends.
As hinted at before, the film did not blow me away as I thought – hoped – it would. Some of that was down to what I perceived as a disappointing lack of respect for Kili and Fili. The heir to Erebor’s demise went down pretty quickly. No sooner had Azog captured Fili, he seemed to throw him to his death. It left me disappointed. A little stronger direction for Thorin would not have been amiss. Similarly, Bolg slaughters Kili without much ado, and Thorin has hardly any time to grieve for the demise of his heirs. From a dramaturgical POV I think they would have deserved a bit more time.
Much as in the previous two instalments, the inclusion of some of the Elven characters did not do much for me. I still found the love triangle between Tauriel, Kili and Legolas unnecessary and ridiculous, although the tacky, tear-jerker of Tauriel’s bereavement over Kili’s death worked on me. Legolas’ involvement could be construed as an attempt at comic relief, I suppose, with his fighting antics so OTT but ultimately entertaining.
In general, what I did not particularly appreciate in this film was the constant linking to the LotR trilogy. There were sledgehammer references to LotR like Thranduil setting his son Legolas on the way to search for the mysterious Ranger of the North, named “Strider”. Or the completely superfluous showdown between Galadriel, Gandalf, Saruman and Elrond vs Sauron, the king of Angmar and the Ringwraiths. Whatever for? They were not needed for TH at all and only served as another link into LotR. Understandable maybe from Jackson’s POV who wants to link in TH to the pre-made sequel. For me, as a late-comer and non-Tolkienite it took away from the later trilogy. They looked less like stand-alone offerings, and received the bitter aftertaste of being a mere side-note/prequel to a supposedly more important trilogy. Unfair!
But what ultimately left me feeling at a loss was the ending of BOTFA. It simply did not appeal to me, admittedly a Thorin shipper, that the film did not end on a dramatic crescendo. It seemed to trickle away rather than end on a high note. I’d have preferred a stand-alone ending that finishes the TH trilogy with a bang of sorts. Instead, Jackson opted to link into LotR. I admit it makes sense, but I found it boring. Sorry, but old Bilbo is just not very exciting…
That said, the film was entertaining, and exciting. The CGI of flying Smaug as he is wreaking havoc on Lake-town and eventually is in his death-throes, was stunning. I loved Ken Stott as the diplomacy-dwarf Balin. Ryan Gage was wonderfully off-putting, cowardly and smarmy as Alfrid, and Luke Evans was a fabulous Bard. Well, who doesn’t love a hero? I would have loved to see a bit more particularly of Kili and Fili, Dwalin and the rest of the dwarves. If this was the culmination of *their* journey and *their* story, then there was not enough of them in this film.But my hope is, that I will see more of them – in their own right and in relation to the LotR links – in the director’s cut of the movie and on DVD.
So, the journey is over. From my POV Jackson overall delivered on the TH trilogy. He proved to be an apt hand at casting the roles, Armitage surely being one of the great surprises of the trilogy. (Not for me or you, as connoisseurs of the Armitage oeuvre and capabilities – we knew this all along, of course ;-)) The dwarf King was in capable hands with Armitage – covering majestic sexiness as well as infuriating madness. Even if it sounds like a contradiction, but Armitage was able to shine because he was acting in an ensemble that was on equal footing with each other. There was no one actor who let the rest of the cast down, they matched each other in care and characterisation of their respective roles. It was evident, that they *believed*.
Equally, the film-making, direction, script, cinematography, costume and make-up, and the art and design of the film matched the high standard of the acting, minor quibbles aside (see above *ggg*). As a trilogy, TH *for me* does stand proudly beside LotR, and I actually find it astonishing that Jackson has been able to reach the standards he had set 10 years previously. His imagination still runs rampant, and the two trilogies are his legacy. I am proud to have been taken on this journey.