Middle-earth motion pictures are quickly becoming as synonymous with Christmas as mulled cider and bad cracker jokes, and last year was no different. Peter Jackson is back with the second instalment in his trilogy of films adapted from J.R.R Tolkien’s fantasy adventure novel. ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ picks up pretty much where Bilbo Baggin’s unexpected journey left off as he, along with Gandalf the Grey and a squad of merry dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield, continue their trek to The Lonely Mountain to find the Arkenstone gem and reclaim the Kingdom of Erebor. On their travels, they encounter giant man-eating spiders, the Elves of Mirkwood, a horde of vicious orcs and of course, Smaug, the dragon. But now that Bilbo is in possession of the One Ring, he is an ever-changing hobbit and his character is severely tested, adding an extra dimension compared to the first film which was mainly an introduction exercise for the host of new characters.
The first instalment of the trilogy came under critical fire for its pacing issues and the lengthy pit stops used halting the proceedings to pad out the typically long running time associated with Peter Jackson’s works. This time around, there is a much more action packed start after and during the big set pieces, the high 48fps frame rate is handled more assuredly but it still unfortunately feels below average in terms of the 3D usage. Considering filmmakers such as Ang Lee and Alfonso Cuaron have made technical leaps forward in this field, the 3D effects here are unremarkable and distracting, failing to add an awful lot to the film.
In saying that, the visuals are mostly spectacular, particularly in one busy sequence when the dwarves are sent hurtling downstream whilst packed in wooden wine barrels as they flee from the elves in a wonderfully entertaining escapade. Talking of elves, we see Jackson employing some creative license when it comes to the pointy-eared clan, bringing Lord of the Ring’s favourite Legolas into the story despite the fact he wasn’t featured in the original book. Though more controversially he also initiates the feisty Tauriel, who has been plucked straight from his own imagination, and wedges in a cross-species love triangle between Tauriel, Legolas and boisterous dwarf Kili, who is the only dwarf aside from the courageous Thorin to receive further character development in this edition. The others follow suit and make up the numbers though a small group are separated from the bunch near the end which may allow for something more interesting in the final piece. The romance aspect of the storytelling feels very unnecessary and forced, completely deflecting from the origins of Tolkien’s beloved tale and serving merely as filler.
The performances are strong across the board, lifting the entertainment value somewhat, and Martin Freeman excels in developing Bilbo’s arc, becoming braver with a brooding darkness as the almighty affect of the ring takes control. He is sadly underused given that he is in the titular role but his two-hander scene with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug the Magnificent is magnificent and provides a memorable showdown, Cumberbatch achieving more than you can imagine in supplying a vocal performance as the deadly antagonist. This follows on from the two-hander in ‘An Unexpected Journey’ with Gollum which was the best scene of that film as well, but with less humour and more sense of threat. Ian McKellen is suitably solid as usual, having had plenty of practice in engulfing himself in the role of Gandalf, but is also used sparingly as he meets with the Necromancer in a subplot which acts as an exciting tension builder for the third film in the series.
It is difficult to give honourable mentions to all faces of this chapter as there are so many but Bard the Bowman and the Master of Lake-town are most notably impressive additions as the plot develops, the former giving the human element that Aragorn supplied in the Lord of the Rings franchise, and I am thoroughly enjoying the way that Thorin, played brilliantly by Richard Armitage, is utilised. He is proving himself as a worthy leader of the hearty dwarves. In being the middle film of a colossal trilogy, ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ manages to find its own identity, shrugging off the issues from the opener and assuming the vital function in bridging it with the anticipated finale which will be with us this Christmas. By then, Peter Jackson’s beard may be as grey as Gandalf’s which would be apt in delivering the last in his marathon collection.
With the real life events still unfolding, it may be too early to do the ‘WikiLeaks film’ but director Bill Condon has thrown caution to the wind to bring us ‘The Fifth Estate’. Based mainly on the book ‘Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website’, it is told through the perspective of Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) from when he first meets Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) at a hackers convention in 2007. He is seen to neglect his career and relationship to explore his keen interest in online activism as Assange’s right hand man but when the strong views of his mysterious mentor begin to threaten innocent lives, Berg worries he has got in too deep. Despite a solid central performance and some decent visual pieces, this thriller offers few thrills, glossing over the topic without really getting beneath the cracks.
Daniel Berg is to Assange, what Nick Carraway is to Gatsby, swooning with intrigue to get closer but constantly afraid of the consequences that it may lead to, or at least that’s the understanding we are presented with. As he puts in the hours online, leaking classified information on behalf of his master, Julian rushes around like a cross between The Doctor and the Silver-haired Surfer, swinging his laptop bag behind him wherever he goes. The plot plods along, and soon becomes boring before eventually arriving at a dead end where reality is yet to fill in the rest, but a few slickly constructed scenes showing the protagonists in a open space visual representation of the Internet make for a welcome distraction from the flailing direction. For viewers who have limited knowledge of the subject, this will provide a good grounding but those already clued up will be left a little unfulfilled.
Fighting past the shoddiness is Benedict Cumberbatch who is charismatic and fun to watch at times, spouting conflicting tales about his white locks in the same manner as the Joker talks about how he got his scabby smile, and who has Assange’s voice and mannerisms down to a tee. Certainly not scared of the challenge of big roles, having previously portraying the Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek’s Khan, here he displays skill for uncanny impersonation but falls victim to a weak script. Brühl, who has also impressed this year, fails to make much of an impact, possibly due to the irritating character, and is top of the wasted talent list which includes Laura Linney as government official Sarah Shaw, and rising star Jamie Blackley, as another one of Assange’s protégées, closely behind.
Telling the story now, a mere seven years after the website was initiated, was always going to be difficult, like trying to tell a joke without the punch line, and this is evident in the filmmaking. It lacks the richness needed to fully immerse the viewer and sadly comes across like a newsflash hurling data rather than doing the fascinating story justice by telling it in entertaining fashion. Assange himself has been critical of the picture, calling it the ‘Anti-WikiLeaks film’ and a talking head to camera moment from Cumberbatch’s Julian at the end of the film preaches to us as individuals to form our own opinions of him and his organisation which somewhat contradicts and belittles the two hours of footage that precedes it. Before the release, Assange had pleaded with Cumberbatch not to go ahead and make this film. Maybe he should have listened.