Tag: Christopher Lee

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Peter Jackson’s second film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is another triumph

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Billy Boyd (Peregrin Took), Dominic Monaghan (Meriadoc Brandybuck), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli/Treebeard), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Bernard Hill (King Theoden), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Miranda Otto (Eowyn), David Wenham (Faramir), Brad Dourif (Grima Wormtongue), Karl Urban (Eomer), Sean Bean (Boromir), Craig Parker (Haldir)

After Fellowship of the Ring we knew we were in safe hands. So, the real question was would The Two Towers continue to win over long-term fans and new-comers to Middle Earth? Would Jackson pull off the difficult middle chapter, resolving some things, but leaving us with enough tantalising hooks? He succeeded: for many The Two Towers is their favourite film in the series.

The fellowship is broken. Boromir (Sean Bean) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) are dead. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are making their own way to Mordor – now guided by the former ring-bearer, the dangerously untrustworthy and unbalanced Gollum (Andy Serkis). Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are tearing across the land of the kingdom of Rohan following the orcs who kidnapped Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). Meanwhile, the dark forces of Saruman (Christopher Lee) are moving against Rohan and its sickly king Theoden (Bernard Hill), determined to destroy it. War has truly come to Middle Earth – but can the return of an old friend help to turn the tide? And will Frodo and Sam find safety or danger when they meet Boromir’s brother Faramir (David Wenham)?

Hard to believe considering the scale of the first film, but Jackson’s second Tolkien adventure ramps up the scale even further. It continues the immersive capturing of the look and feel of the novels, while reconceptualising it into something closer to a stirring, gripping action epic. The Two Towersis awe-inspring in its scale and world-creation, building towards one of the all-time great cinematic battles as the few of Rohan hold out against the massed forces of Saruman at Helm’s Deep.

Just as in Fellowship the pace and tension is heightened. With the heroes split into three groups, there are a number of balls to juggle. But Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens superbly intercut the more linear book chapters – feeling free to shift orders, motivations and inventing their own narrative flourishes to link events together. The film adapts around 13 of the novel’s twenty chapters (the rest being assigned to the other films), but is so perfectly paced it never feels overstretched or disjointed. They even add more material involving Saruman, making this arch-manipulator a larger presence in the film than in the novel.

The Two Towers radically changes many of the events of the novel – but in most cases (except one) this is done with such respect for Tolkien that even most fans overlooked them. So, it hardly matters Theoden’s motivations for making a stand at Helm’s Deep have radically changed or that the films add warg action or has Aragorn presumed dead at the halfway point. Elves turning up to fight at Helm’s Deep is such a “Hurrah” moment, only the most extreme Tolkien purist could object (they would have objected a lot more to the original plan to have Arwen fight there). Merry and Pippin’s interaction with the Ents (living trees) are re-purposed to give them greater agency.

In fact, the changes to Faramir were the only ones anyone objected. In the novel Faramir is pure-of-heart and untempted by the Ring. With much of the novel’s Frodo material transferred to The Return of the King, Jackson, Walsh and Boyens needed to make Faramir “an obstacle”. Cinematically, the idea of Faramir trying to take the Ring to Gondor – motivated by the urge to win the affection of his distant father – made perfect sense (and Wenham delivers the character very well).

But for many book fans, this was a travesty of a beloved character (for all that Faramir eventually proves his quality). I’ve never met a book fan who wasn’t displeased by “movie Faramir”. For those familiar with the films, there won’t be a problem – but I can see the point. The character is clearly, in a subtle way, different from the more whimsical and unsullied man the book presents.

If there is one element of Tolkien Jackson, Walsh and Boyens are not interested in, it’s Tolkien’s whimsy and idea of characters as paragons (or parAragorns). For the film, the conflicted Boromir is more interesting and sympathetic than goodie-two-shoes Faramir. By contrast, to Tolkien Faramir was an ideal and Boromir a shadow of the martial blowhards who led millions to death in the trenches. Tolkien wanted heroes who were more certain and perfect. The films are about the struggles people face with doing their duty, questioning their purpose. The films are not about questions of spiritualty and moral purity. Tolkien gives over long chapters to the spirituality of the Ents and one short one to Helm’s Deep – that balance is completely flipped here.

But the advantage is that the idea of true heroism being conquering your own doubts pays off hugely in the adaptation. Aragorn – a superb and hugely charismatic Viggo Mortensen, literally sweating heroism and poetic sensibility – has his character arc improved by the film. In the book, he has not doubt at all. The film establishes his reluctance to lead and unwillingness to acknowledge he is of men. From seeing only the weakness of men, he slowly identifies with them. It’s a conscious decision for him to fight at Helm’s Deep and the battle sees him finally accepting leadership. It’s a richness not found in the novel.

Of course, battles are more compelling on screen than the page. Helm’s Deep is perhaps the greatest battle on screen, a Kurosawa-inspired, rain-splatted masterpiece, perfectly mixing character beats and action. It never forgets that we care about people not action, so rarely more than thirty seconds go by without one of our heroes front-and-centre. Shots of refugees establish the stakes, the costs of war are laid shockingly bare and the battle is crammed full of awe-inspiring shots of mayhem and martial prowess. You can’t not be excited by this superbly choreographed epic, with just the right level of Jackson’s pulpish-gore background laid on.

But this is not just a film about a battle. As always, every beat is perfectly worked – even if the Ents material suffers from the reduced interest from the creative team. The opening sequence expanding the battle between Gandalf and the Balrog is jaw-dropping. The world of Rohan is created beautifully. Bernard Hill’s Theoden is plagued with self-doubt. Miranda Otto is very good as a woman who wants to prove her place in a man’s world (even if the hinted romantic sub plot between her and Aragorn feels a little forced).

But the biggest magic in the film, and its most special effect, might just be Gollum. While the computer wizardry to create the character is astounding, it works because the acting behind it is sublime. Serkis invented a whole school of acting in motion capture. The screenwriters expand the novel’s conflicted psyche and explores even more the character’s split personality – Gollum (the Ring dominated side) and Smeagol (the timid but dangerous side), both made distinctive by Serkis. Jackson’s most bravura scene might be one of his most simple, a two-shot argument between the two sides, that sees Serkis switch personality with each cut. It’s a superb combination of cinematic language and acting skill.

The Two Towers is superb film-making, with music, photography, editing and design all faultless. The acting is again brilliant – Wood, McKellen, Astin, Tyler as well as those mentioned above. But it’s also a brilliant adaptation of a novel, making changes to increase tension and drama and carefully selecting the elements that will work most effectively on screen. It’s closing battle is one for the ages, but the entire film is a perfectly paced epic, with a growing sense of danger and doom that ends on a beat of quiet hope. This series is a thing of beauty.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Peter Jackson’s near-perfect opening chapter of his Tolkien adaptation

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Sean Bean (Boromir), Billy Boyd (Pippin Took), Dominic Monaghan (Merry Brandybuck), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Hugo Weaving (Elrond)

When it was released, people wondered if there was a market for three mega-length adaptations of Tolkien. By the time it finished, Hollywood was casting eyes at The Hobbit and working out how many films that could stretch to. Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring is a film so completely perfect it pulled off the near-impossible: embraced all, from the novel’s passionate fanbase, to lovers of blockbusters and connoisseurs of cinema. Jackson turned a landmark novel into a landmark film, the sort of work that decades of other films (and TV shows) would be inevitably compared to. By any benchmark, The Fellowship of the Ring is a cultural and cinematic turning point.

Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is a young hobbit who inherits his home from his Uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm) – along with a mysterious ring which gives its wearer the power of invisibility. But more than that, this ring is the very same ring crafted by the Dark Lord Sauron: the source of his power and possibly the most evil item in the world. Warned of its danger by his uncle’s old friend, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Frodo agrees to carry it first to the elves at Rivendell – and then from there to the fires of Mount Doom, the only place it can be destroyed. Joining him on this perilous quest is a ‘fellowship’: Gandalf, fellow hobbits Sam (Sean Astin), Pippin (Billy Boy) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), human Boromir (Sean Bean) and the mysterious ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who may be the heir to the kingdom of men.

Jackson’s film faced a huge problem from the start: cater to the fans too much, make it too drenched in the high-fantasy of the novel, and you risk alienating an audience sceptical about stories of magic and elves; push the film too far the other way and it becomes something denounced by the fanbase. Fortunately, Jackson (and fellow scriptwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens) transform the book into a masterfully-paced, emotionally-invested epic saga with moments of comedy and tragedy and an overwhelming sense that colossal stakes are being played for. By focusing on what makes The Lord of the Rings such a great story they helped nail making it accessible to the sort of people who wouldn’t dream of picking up a fantasy book.

The novel is carefully, subtly altered throughout to increase pace and build up the emotional depth of the characters. Its timeline is telescoped (Gandalf’s 19 year research into the ring becomes a few months), stand-alone sections removed (good bye Tom Bombadil) and personal conflicts and emotions are subtly made more prominent (most notably Gandalf’s grandfatherly affection for Frodo and the conflicted admiration and resentments between Boromir and Aragorn). What this succeeds in doing is creating a film that actually alters a lot of the original book (reassigning multiple actions and shifting many motivations) but ends up carrying so much of the emotional and narrative truth that it feels completely faithful. The tone is perfectly captured but also becomes a gripping, cinematic drama, populated by characters who feel real, for all their hairy feet or wizard’s hats.

The script is a perfect mixture of the greatest lines and quotes from the book, expanded with a real understanding of character motivation. Its all complemented by faultless direction with a sweeping visual panache from Jackson. This is a passionate director, working at the top of his game. The film is, of course, breathtakingly beautiful – New Zealand, the perfect location for Middle Earth, still dines out on the tourist trade to this day – but Jackson brilliantly mixes the epic with touches of his own Grindhouse roots. So, he can shoot stunning chase scenes with Nazgul or dreamy ascents of mountains with the same flair as he can the grimy, body horror of an Uruk-Hai’s birth. I can’t stress too much the level of Jackson’s achievement here: the film shifts between genre and tone from scene-to-scene: the Moria sequence goes through mystery, whimsy, regret, tragedy, action, awe-inspiring scope then crushing loss. Another director could have made that feel like a wildly veering train – Jackson makes it feel all of a piece. Not a single scene is untouched by directorial genius.

Jackson’s passion for the project was communicated to the entire team. In every single technical department, no effort has been spared to create Tolkien’s world (and crucially it always feels like Tolkien’s world). Stills of this film could be slotted into editions of the book and not look out of place. From the detail of the costume, design of the sets, to the writing of elvish – not a single prop, set or costume doesn’t look like it belongs. Everything feels grown out of the imagination of the reader. It’s helped hugely by the effort to recruit famed Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe: their iconic visualisations of the novel inspired every inch of the design.

It’s also a film that feels real (even though so much of it was of course made in a computer). The film used practical locations and shooting tricks wherever possible. Obviously, the New Zealand landscape was used to sumptuous effect, but also wherever possible models and miniatures were used. Even the height differences between hobbits and other characters were largely achieved in camera. It’s an approach which not only subconsciously communicates an intimacy, it also helps make the story feel even more grounded: a sense of dramatic events happening to real people.

The film also brilliantly establishes the sinister darkness of the ring. One of the trickiest things in adapting Tolkien is dealing with the fact that your villains are a suspended glowing eye and a gold ring. TFOR expertly establishes the dark malevolence of the Ring, as a sinister, manipulative, wicked presence that corrupts those around it – it’s even given its own darkly seductive voice. Never for a moment does anyone watching this film doubt that it is bad news, its absolute is evil totally accepted. Think about that for a second and that is a stunning achievement.

Then there’s the score. If you ever wanted to prove to someone how important music is to the experience of watching a film, show them this one. Howard Shore’s orchestral compositions not only deepen and enrich every frame they accompany, they are also perfect in capturing the tone of novel. From the piping hobbit music, to the demonic choirs of the Nazguls, to the soaring but mournful themes of Gondor, this film could almost be a musical. Watch it without dialogue and you still follow it perfectly.

Jackson also nailed the cast. Ian McKellen quite simply becomes Gandalf, on the surface a twinkling grandfatherly presence, but below a frighteningly powerful man carrying centuries of wisdom. It’s a brilliantly iconic performance. Elijah Wood brings a wonderful innocence that slowly strips away as Frodo. Ian Holm’s Bilbo is a delightful charmer with flashes of corruption. Viggo Mortensen is all charisma and conflict as Aragorn. Christopher Lee was born to play Saruman. Liv Tyler was a revelation as Arwen. Sean Bean’s masculine Boromir hides deep-rooted personal doubt, insecurity and fear of failure. The cast is perfect.

And there isn’t a duff scene in the film. It’s opening montage is a masterclass in narrative introduction and awe-inspiring action. The Hobbiton sections have just the right tone of whimsy. The chase through Moria turns descending a staircase into a nail-biter. The final breaking of the fellowship gives us breath-taking battles and heart-rending tragedy, along with an iconic death scene.

No one else could have possibly delivered the novel to the screen better than this. Jackson’s fingerprints are on every inch of the film. It’s a masterclass in adaptation, a beautiful thing to watch and listen to, exquisitely acted and utterly compelling. Both true to the novel and totally engaging for newcomers, it might be the best of the series – and when it was released, felt like the film Tolkien fans had been waiting for their whole lives.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Hound of the baskervilles header
Peter Cushing is the great detective in The Hound of the Baskervilles

Director: Terence Fisher

Cast: Peter Cushing (Sherlock Holmes), André Morell (Doctor Watson), Christopher Lee (Sir Henry Baskerville), Marla Landi (Cecile Stapleton), David Oxley (Sir Hugo Baskerville), Francis de Wolff (Dr Mortimer), Miles Malleson (Bishop Frankland), Ewen Solon (Stapleton), John Le Mesurier (Barrymore), Helen Gross (Mrs Barrymore)

Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous story hardly needs introduction. In 1959 it was told with a Hammer Horror twist. With its demonic dog, fog covered moor and blood-laden backstory surely no Sherlock Holmes story could be better suited to the studio. The film is fairly faithful to the basic outline of the original, although with added tarantulas and (more controversially) a new villain.

But it all works pretty much a treat, largely due to the performances of Cushing and Morell as Holmes and Watson. Cushing’s Holmes is sharp, analytical, has bursts of energy mixed with impatient distraction. Cushing went back to the stories and threw in many small details – from lines from Doyle to physical moments such as securing notes to the mantelpiece with a knife. His Holmes also uses rudeness in a Doylesque way he rarely does in film. Cushing has the intelligence and dynamism of the Detective – he’s one of the more overlooked actors to play the role – and had been determined to be faithful in his interpretation (sadly sequels were not forthcoming, although Cushing played the role several more times on the BBC).

Morell also returned to the novels to present a Dr Watson who was smooth, professional, assured and competent if uninspired. It was a far cry from the blundering buffoon which – thanks to Nigel Bruce – the public expected from Holmes’ faithful Boswell. Morell’s more patrician style made him a fine contrast with Cushing’s bohemian tinged Holmes. The two actors also spark beautifully off each other and create a feeling of a genuine friendship, underpinned by affection and loyalty, frequently showing genuine concern for each other’s safety.

Aside from these two excellent performances in the leads, the film is a solid if not spectacular adaptation, competently filmed. Terence Fisher’s direction sometimes struggles to cover the cheapness of the enterprise and some sets convince more than others. For a film that is quite short, the pace sometimes slackens (the Baskerville legend in particular gets far too much screen time, probably connected to the presence of the buxom servant girl Sir Hugo is planning to bed). Moments such as an attempt to assassinate Sir Henry via tarantula in London (which makes no sense at all) provides decent moments of tension but are basically filler.

The film does manage to address some of the problems of the novel by introducing a greater sense of mystery, in particular by providing motivations for several characters. Saying that, just as in the novel (where the mystery is solved by Holmes travelling to Scotland and reading some records – not good drama), here much of the mystery is resolved by Holmes carrying out an off-stage conversation with convict Seldon. Much as in the book, Holmes travelling to the area incognito doesn’t really add much to the story other than providing a late reveal.

Better invention however comes in the introduce of a femme fatale in Marla Landi’s Cecile Stapleton, here re-imagined as a sexy, wild girl of undefined (and nonsensical) European origin. She sparks off a neat chemistry with Christopher Lee’s Sir Henry – here playing for the only time in his career not the villain but the romantic lead! – and her development late in the film presents a fresh take on the resolution.

It’s certainly a little more fresh than the eventual scuffle with the dog – which to be honest doesn’t look either that intimidating or convincing. The dog itself is rather underwhelming, and more threat is actually conveyed by the moor itself, a mysterious stretch of land coated in fog covering treacherous bogs.

What Fisher and Hammer do really well is atmosphere, and the gothic feel of the piece is pretty much spot on. There is the expected claret red blood – and a suggestion of something really grotesque which befalls a victim on the moor – mixed in with sexy ladies. It’s an exploitation twist on Holmes, but then the novel itself was basically pretty much a B-movie in text. And the fundamental story is largely unchanged, with both the virtues and vices of the book captured.

The finest thing about it is the acting. Several scene-stealing actors chuck in neat cameos. Le Mesurier is perfect as the reserved butler Barrymore. De Wolff is a sharp and arrogant Mortimer. Malleson steals his scenes as an absent-minded Frankland (here re-imagined as an eccentric cleric). Christopher Lee relishes the chance to play against type, making Sir Henry a pillar of upright, honest decency. But the real delight is Cushing and Morell as Holmes and Watson, a brilliant combination.

Moulin Rouge (1952)

Dancers a go-go in John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (not that one!)

Director: John Huston

Cast: José Ferrer (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec/Comte Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Jane Avril), Suzanne Flon (Myriamme Hyam), Claude Nollier (Comtess de Toulouse-Lautrec), Katherine Kath (La Goule), Muriel Smith (Aicha), Colette Marchand (Marie Charlot), Georges Lannes (Sgt Patou), Theodore Bikel (King Milan IV), Peter Cushing (Marcel de la Voisier), Christopher Lee (Georges Seurat)

John Huston’s biography of Toulouse-Lautrec is less well known than its exclamation marked name-sake. It would be easy to say there is little in common, beyond the name and setting, between Huston’s film and Luhrmann’s operatic jukebox musical. But that’s to overlook the sprightly and confident shooting that Huston gives many of the scenes in the Moulin Rouge, and the mood of depression and corruption that underlies all the glamour of the club. These are two films very much drinking from the same well – even if the aesthetic and style of both are drastically different.

This artist biography focuses mostly on the last decade of Toulouse-Lautrec’s life. Played by José Ferrer (who also does double duty as the artist’s patrician father), it’s an exploration of the self-loathing and depression that drives the artist and funnels itself into his art. Art which is bold, animated with strikingly unique use of colours and movement. It’s all very different from the more timid, self-conscious crippled artist, the growth of whose legs was arrested after an accident in his childhood. Huston’s film front-and-centres Toulouse-Lautrec’s quest for love, but it has enough to say about the rest of its subject’s life.

Similar to his later work on Moby Dick, Huston aimed for a very particular look for his film, inspired by the colours used in the artwork of its subject. Shooting in Technicolour – and much to the objection of that company, who believed all films should showpiece it’s particularly striking bold colours rather than the muted colours Lautrec at times used – he manages to assemble a picture that feels like it completely captures not only the style of the artist, but also captures something of the more grimy and seedy side of the Parisian streets he walked. There is a neat little scene in the middle of the film where Lautrec argues with a printer over mixing his own specialised colours, rather than the more traditional colours he works with. Hard not to see that as a commentary on Huston’s own struggles with Technicolour.

It gives the film though its own very distinctive look, in which Huston uses a number of cinematic approaches that really capture the vibrancy of the Moulin Rouge. The opening scenes, that showcase a flashy can-can dance at the club is shot with immediacy, the camera roving in amongst the dancers, throwing us into the atmosphere and excitement of this ground-breaking night club. Alongside which – within the confines of the Hay’s Code – we get a sense of the sexuality of the nightclub, captured in the tempestuous clashes between the dancers and the pettiness and suddenness of feuds that spring up over every subject matter.

The film doesn’t quite continue all this vibrancy in the rest of its length as it focuses more on Lautrec’s own personal life. José Ferrer, always a distantly patrician actor, is perhaps a little too stilted to really invest us in the emotional pain of a man who didn’t believe he was worth loving. However his commitment to playing the part physically can’t be faulted. To play the diminutive Lautrec, Ferrer wore a contraption that folded his lower legs up behind him (he could only wear it for about 15 minutes before he had to restore the circulation to his legs), wearing this even in scenes he could not be seen full length, so as to get the posture of Lautrec correct. It’s a shame that Ferrer’s slightly reserved manner and precision leaves you feeling like the character is being studied at arms length rather than up-close and personally.

This affects slightly the focus on romance that the film takes – art gets its place, but the style very much looks at these in context of romantic struggles. Lautrec is presented as man convinced of his own ugliness and the barrier of his disability, who could never find a woman who would love him. This drew him, it seems, either towards destructive relationships (in particular with a ‘prostitute’ – not that you would know thanks to the Hays Code – played with an Oscar-nominated richness by Colette Marchand) or to relationships he convinced himself could only be hopeless, platonic obsessions (Suzanne Flon as an art-lover who only the most self-loathing of men couldn’t tell is devoted to Lautrec).

The film interestingly rather misses a sense of fun that you might expect from a nightclub scene. Lautrec is of course miserable for most of his life, self-medicating his physical pain and depression with drink. His parents are either guilty at the accident that crippled him, or frustrated at his choice to spend his life painting the dancers of the Parisian night-life. Huston does get a great sense of the compulsion of the artist – Lautrec is rarely seen not sketching something – and his film is very successful at capturing the loneliness that can accompany art.

If the film does sometimes become a slightly old-fashioned a-to-b story of an artist and his inspiration, it counter-balances this with the flashes of creativity and vibrancy Huston brings to the film. Huston was himself critical of the film in the future, thinking it a missed opportunity – I would suppose due to the general lack of sex in a story set in an environment soaked in it – but working within the limitations he had, it’s a fine piece of work. While you could wish for a slightly more engaging lead performance, it certainly works very effectively to bring its setting and story to life.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

He hates sand you know. Anakin puts the moves on Padmé in Attack of the Clones

Director: George Lucas

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker), Natalie Portman (Senator Padmé Amidala), Ian McDiarmid (Chancellor Palpatine), Christopher Lee (Count Dooku), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett), Frank Oz (Yoda), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2 D2), Jimmy Smits (Bail Organa), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Joel Edgerton (Owen Lars), Silas Carson (Nute Gunray/Ki-Adi-Mundi)

Nothing could be as bad as The Phantom Menace. Surely? Well, umm, Attack of the Clones is pretty bad, but it’s not quite as stodgy and racist as the first one. It really isn’t. But don’t get me wrong, it’s still tone death, poorly written, crappily directed, poorly assembled, textbook bad film-making disguised under a lot of money.

Anyway, ten years have crawled by since Phantom Menace. Padmé (Natalie Portman) is now a senator campaigning against a revolutionary Separatist movement in the Republic, led by mysterious former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). After a failed assassination attempt, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Padewan pupil Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christiansen) are assigned to protect her. After another assassination attempt throws up a strange link to a mysterious planet of industrial cloners, Obi-Wan investigates leaving Padmé in Anakin’s care: but the two of them are falling in love, strictly against the rules of the Jedi order.

Sigh. Attack of the Clones is once again a mess, overly computer engineered, badly directed by a director with no knack for visual storytelling other than throwing special effects at the screen. It has a densely disinteresting plot about shady dealings around a mysterious Clone army that eventually the film doesn’t bother to resolve. Lucas shoots the entire film in a shiny, sterile, entirely computer generated environment that looks worse and worse the older the film gets. It builds towards a series of clashes at the end that have impressive spectacle on first viewing, but are hugely empty viewing experiences the more you come back to them. But all this isn’t even the film’s main problem.

First and foremost, the most egregious problem with this film is the romance at its heart. This romance, whose impact is meant to be felt through every film is to come, is as clumsy and unconvincing as anything you are likely to see. Not for one second are you convinced that this couple could ever actually be a thing. For starters Anakin is a whiny, preening, chippy rather dull man who over the course of the film murders a village full of people. Hardly the sort of character to make women swoon. On top of this, his romantic banter and tendency of staring blankly and possessively at Padmé has all the charm of a would-be stalker, mentally planning out the dimensions of the basement he’ll imprison his love in. 

Padmé is hardly much more engaging. Her way of handling this love-struck young man, who she claims she doesn’t want to encourage? To flirt with him in a series of increasingly revealing costumes, while constantly telling him “no we can’t do anything” – for unspecified reasons. But then as she says “you’ll always be that 12 year old boy to me” (Oh yuck George!). Portman looks she can barely raise any interest in holding Anakin’s hand, let alone conceiving future generations of Skywalkers. The desperate attempt to create a sense of “love across the divide” falls flat, flat, flat with all the sweep of a Casualty romance of the week. Put it frankly, we are never ever given any reason at all for us to think that they have any reason to be in love.

Despite all this the film desperately tries to throw them together into a series of clichéd romantic encounters, from candle-lit meals to gondola cruises around the lakes of Naboo. Jesus the film even throws in a flirtatious picnic (in which, true to form, Anakin espouses the benefits of totalitarianism, hardly the sort of thing to get a young girl’s heart fluttering!) followed by a roll around in the long grass after a bit of horseplay. To be honest it’s sickening and all the fancy dressing in the world never disguises the utter lack of chemistry between either characters or actors. And you’ll suffer with the actors who are trawling through the appalling “romantic” dialogue. The infamous “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth” sums it up – especially as Anakin ends it with stroking Amidala’s exposed shoulder possessively. Late in the film Padmé says “I’ve been dying inside since you came back into my life” – I know how she fuckin’ feels.

But then to be honest nothing really works in this simply terrible film. Of course a lot of the blame rests with Lucas whose overwhelming ineptitude as a writer and director is exposed in scene after scene. Most of the dialogue lacks any wit or lightness at all, constantly straining for a grandeur it can’t deliver and reads like George simply knocked out the first draft and left it at that. As for his directing: the camera positioning lacks any imagination what-so-ever. Most scenes that don’t have lightsabers feature characters sitting talking at each other to fill in plot details (I’m not joking here, there are so many different designs of chairs in this film it’s like strolling around IKEA). Sometimes George spices it up by having characters work slowly and aimlessly from A to B telling each other the plot (I’m failing to resist saying this is a pretty decent metaphor from the film).

The film shakes this up with a few action sequences which either tediously ape things we’ve seen before, but not-as-good (a chase through an asteroid field smacks of Empire Strikes Back) or having a computer game realism to them that never involves you. A prolonged sequence in a battle droid factory literally looks like a computer game from its hideously shiny lack of realism, to its logic, to the way George shoots it with the conveyor belt moving relentlessly forward visually like a dated platform game.

In fact computer game is a pretty good way of thinking about this film. When making this film, Lucas was convinced this would be the start of a new age: that only dull, traditional directors would be building sets and that all the cool kids would make everything in computers. Watching this film today in hi-def blu-ray does it no favours. Lucas’ computer generated sets (in most shots everything except the actors and their costumes are not real) look ridiculously shiny and unrealistic. There is no weight and reality to anything. Instead it all looks like some sort of bizarre, wonky computer visuals. How can you invest in anything in this film when even the goddamn sofa they are sitting on is a visual effect? How can anything have any weight or meaning? Compared to the lived in appearance of the Millennium Falcon, nothing looks realistic or carries any weight at all.

George Lucas isn’t really a director of action either. It’s hard not to compare the epic battles here with the style and substance of the (equally effects filled world) of Lord of the Rings being released at the same time. There, the battle scenes not only carry real emotional weight and peril but also have at least some sense of tactics and story-telling. This is just a collection of special effects being thrown at each other, like an exploding fart in a special effects lab. This makes for events that look impressive when you first see them, but carry no lasting impact: when you revisit the film, nothing feels important or dangerous or coherent – instead it’s just a lot of stuff happening, loudly.

This goes for the famous Yoda-Dooku light saber duel. Sure when I first saw this, seeing a computer generated muppet take on a stunt double with an octogenarian’s face super-imposed on his felt really exciting. But again, on repeated viewings, it’s just a load of wham and bang that kind of leaves you cold (not least because the fight is a showy bore-draw). It’s as ridiculously over-made and over stuffed as half a dozen other fights in the film. It’s almost representative of how crude these prequels are: a character always defined by his intellect and patience in Yoda reduced to a bouncy special effect for a moment of cheap “wow” for the fans. I’ll also throw in the lousy fan service of turning Boba Fett (a character who has a fascination for a lot of fans for no real reason) into an integral part of the Star Wars backstory – as if George intended this character at any point to be so popular, until he released the merchandising opportunities…

Lucas’ direction fails time and time and time again. Even small scenes fall with a splat or feature moments that get the wrong type of chuckles. The moment where Anakin embraces his dying mother? Forever ruined by the snigger worthy collapse of Pernilla August’s Shmi in his arms, looking like a primary school child miming playing dead (tongue out and all) in a school play. Obi-Wan and Anakin’s chase through the skies of Coruscant packed with “jokey” attempted buddy cop lines that never ring true. The film has even more skin crawlingly embarrassing scenes than Phantom Menace, from a sickeningly cutesy room of “younglings” learning Jedi skills to Obi-Wan’s bizarre encounter with a greasy alien in some sort of American diner. There is precisely one moment of wit in the film (Obi-Wan using the force to tell a drug dealer to “You want to go home and rethink your life”). Other than that – nope, it’s poorly made, poorly written, poorly assembled rubbish.

None of the actors emerge with credit. Pity poor old Hayden Christiansen, left to his own devices by Lucas’s inept, direction free, direction. But he is absolutely, drop-down, unreedemably awful in this film. In fact Anakin, far from being a jumping off point, was the death-knell of his career. Was there really no other young actor with charisma who could have stepped in to take this role instead? Portman fairs a tiny bit better, while at least McGregor, Jackson and Lee have enough experience to take care of themselves. But there is no sense of relationship between any of these characters. The two most important relationships Anakin has in the film contain no chemistry: he and Padme and he and Obi-Wan (neither of whom seem to particularly like each other).

Attack of the Clones could never be as disappointing as Phantom Menace (what could?) but it’s far, far, far away from being a good film. It’s got a simply terrible script, is directed with a dull flatness that all the CGI flair and shouting can’t distract you from. There is nothing in there for you to invest emotionally in. It’s built around a relationship that quite frankly doesn’t work at all on any levels. It builds to a random ending that feels like George ran out of ideas rather than because it meets any thematic reason. How could it all have gone so wrong?

Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

John Mills brings to life Captain Scott’s tragic end in low-key, hero-worship film Scott of the Antarctic

Director: Charles Frend

Cast: John Mills (Robert Falcon Scott), Diana Churchill (Kathleen Scott), Harold Warrander (Dr Edward Wilson), Anne Firth (Oriana Wilson), Derek Bond (Captain Laurence Oates), Reginald Beckwith (Lt Bowers), James Robertson Justice (PO “Taff” Evans), Kenneth More (Lt Teddy Evans), Norman Williams (William Lashly), John Gregson (Tom Crean), James McKechnie (Dr Edward Atkinson), Barry Letts (Apsley Cherry-Gerrard), Christopher Lee (Bernard Day), Clive Morton (Herbert Ponting)

There are perhaps few more controversial figures in historical discussion than Robert Falcon Scott. The great polar explorer was, for most of his career, and for a long period after his death in 1912, a national hero, the man who – with stiff-upper-lip bravery – gave his life struggling against the elements to conquer the South Pole. Scott’s reputation only began to be questioned in the late 1970s, with a series of biographies culminating in a near-vicious – but compelling – anti-Scott argument laid out by Roland Huntford in his book Scott and Amundsen. Scott’s many flaws – both personal and in planning – set a new landscape for seeing his achievements as carrying too high a cost, especially in an atmosphere where the extreme sacrifice was seen as something to be avoided if at all possible, rather than an everyday fact of life for post-war generations.

In this context, watching this Ealing Studios 1948 Scott biopic – one of the biggest box-office hits of its year in the UK – is an interesting experience. While the film’s tone and its depiction of Scott are essentially fairly heroic, the film flirts at points with the errors and misjudgements that led to Scott leading himself and his companions into an icy immolation in a tent eleven miles away from a depot that could have given them a chance to survive.

Frend’s film is very well made and beautifully shot – so perfectly does it capture the look and feel of the Antarctic, and the extreme cold, that you overlook the fact that at no point can you see the actors’ breath – and it covers the main points of the expedition very well. It’s in some ways, today, almost hilariously stiff-upper lip, with the expedition members marching dutifully (and with a self-deprecating smile) to certain death, and the ladies at home speaking with such cut-glass primness you have to keep checking that Celia Johnson isn’t in the film.

There are some strong performances, not least from Mills (a very close physical likeness for Scott himself). Mills was the perfect choice for this role –overflowing with a sense of duty, but with a slight edge of idee fixe pride where it’s clear that he’s not willing to budge from anything to do with his mission. Harold Warrander also makes a strong impression as an artistic spirited scientist, Dr Wilson, who quietly hides his premonitions of disaster and later feelings of regret due to a sense of personal loyalty to Scott. Reginald Beckwith, James Robertson Justice and Kenneth More also give decent performances.

But the main appeal is the glorious technicolour look of the film. The film used no fewer than three photographers and brilliantly mixes together painted backdrops, studio locations and some genuine location footage with skilful and glorious aplomb. The technicolour tinge to the shots is wonderful – watching it in high definition, it’s like a series of polar expedition photos brought skilfully to life. The film in fact apes several of the famous photos from the expedition with such beauty that you feel like they could be printed and framed.

The plot however is more concerned with checking off the events of the expedition – from its conception, through its financing and recruitment, initial excursions and the final (futile?) march to the pole and the death march home. Frend’s film is clearly largely intended to be hagiographic – the men are by-and-large totally committed to the journey, there is nary a cross word between them, and the film never really questions the point or purpose of the journey – or if it was worth the lives of five men to achieve it.

However, there are moments where the film leans towards a more interesting criticism of Scott’s planning and leadership. The funding campaign is largely a disaster, bailed out only by a last minute donation. Scott ignores advice from famed explorer Nansen to take dogs (man hauling is of course more noble) and places far too much faith in motor sledges (he is shown ruefully staring at one after it breaks down). Equipment – not least the vital fuel canisters kept at depots – is shown to be inadequate. The dogs perform extremely well – far better than the horses. The film doesn’t avoid the grisly fate of the horses either – I’ve never understood Scott defenders who claim it would have been cruel for Scott to take dogs to the pole, but never question the working to death and shooting of ponies in conditions they were totally unsuited for. 

The film skirts around the moral responsibility Scott bore for the death of the men who entrusted their lives to his planning. It does show – faithfully – the final depot being placed one degree less further south than originally planned (a shortfall that would contribute heavily to dooming the men later on). But as first Evans then Oates pass away, the film focuses on the tragic loss rather than the planning, preparation and “cut to the wire” contingences Scott was working with that contributed to this (not least his last minute decision to expand his polar party to five from the original number of four, sending three men back to base – with all rations and provisions having been packaged for two teams of four). 

The film is less interested in this, more keen on showing the heroic progression of events. It gives us moments, but the main purpose of the film is to sing the praises of Scott. This means, for me, the film becomes more and more deficient as time goes on and the histographical debate around Scott becomes all the richer and more engaging. For all the qualities of the film itself technically, it doesn’t have anything to contribute towards this and just offers up the straight printing of the legend.

For me, by the way, Scott is almost the ultimate expression of Edwardian amateurness, taking on the most challenging environments of the world with a superb confidence in a “special role” for the British in history. While Huntford’s personal dislike for Scott stings too much, there are legitimate points to be made about Scott’s poor planning, his obsessive disregard for learning from his mistakes and his refusal to engage with or embrace the sort of Inuit techniques that Amundsen learnt from. And, at the end of the day, while you could say Scott was unlucky compared to Shackleton, whose equally disastrous expedition at least saw all his men return alive, the fact remains that Scott’s old-school, old-fashioned, Britain-shall-prevail-attitude led not only to his own death but the deaths of four other people in hellishly cold conditions thousands of miles away from their families. Say what you like for his bravery, but don’t forget the price that others also paid for it.

Hugo (2011)

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo: a kids film in name only

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret), Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle), Ben Kingsley (Papa Georges), Sacha Baron Cohen (Inspector Gustave Dasté), Ray Winstone (Claude Cabret), Emily Mortimer (Lisette), Jude Law (Mr Cabret), Helen McCrory (Mama Jeanne), Michael Stuhlbarg (René Tabard), Christopher Lee (Monsieur Labisse), Frances de la Tour (Madame Emilie), Richard Griffiths (Monsieur Frick)

Martin Scorsese isn’t exactly the first name you think of when your mind turns to directors of children’s films. So perhaps it makes sense that, in Hugo, he directed a children’s film aimed at virtually anyone except children. A huge box-office flop, Hugo was garlanded with awards and critics’ acclaim – but I’d be amazed if you find any child with a DVD of it. It’s a film made by a passionate lover of cinema, aimed at lovers of cinema, which just happens to have a child at the centre of it. 

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan, living in the Paris train station fixing the clocks, and attempting to fix a curious automaton which his late father (Jude Law) had taken from the Paris museum to repair. After being caught by Monsieur Georges (Ben Kingsley) stealing parts from his toy shop in the station, Hugo must earn back his confiscated notebook on the workings of the automaton. Hugo starts a friendship with Georges’ god-daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), and together they begin to investigate the mysterious past of Papa Georges – and his connection with the early days of cinema.

Any understanding of what makes a good film for children is missing here. It’s not exciting, it’s not engrossing, it’s not particularly fun, it doesn’t place the child (really) at the heart, and most importantly it doesn’t have a story children can relate to. The characters spend a lot of time talking about the glorious adventure they’re on – but none of the excitement translates to the screen. Instead the action creeps forward uncertainly, with the motivations of Hugo himself unclear. There are half hearted attempts to aim at a universal fear children can relate to – losing your parents and searching for new ones – but the film doesn’t run with it. 

Its real interest is the power of the movies. So Hugo’s story gets lost halfway through the film, as Scorsese focuses in on the redemption of famed cinema auteur and pioneer Georges Méliès. The children’s adventure is nothing more than visiting a library to find out who Méliès was – after that, they are effectively superfluous to the story. Details about Hugo’s relationship with his father, or with his distant uncle, are completely dropped – and the automaton that seemed like it held the key to Hugo’s purpose, becomes a MacGuffin. It’s a film about a giant of cinema, made by a giant of cinema.

So let’s put aside the marketing of this film as children’s film. The only element of the film that feels remotely like it is part of some sort of kids’ flick is Sacha Baron Cohen’s slapstick, funny-accented railway inspector – and as such Cohen’s hammy mugging sticks out like a tiresome sore thumb. The rest of the film is what you would expect from a cinema enthusiast making a film about the movies – a glorious, loving recreation of old silent movies and the methods of making them, shot and told with a sprinkling of movie magic. 

The film looks wonderful. The cinematography is gorgeous, the production design astounding. It’s beautifully made and has a light and enchanting score. Scorsese goes all out to homage the shots and set-ups of old silent movies. In fact the film only really comes to life in its second half, where flashbacks show the methods Méliès used to make his films. The recreation of scenes from these old classics is brilliantly done – and Scorsese’s designers delight in filling the screen with the sort of colour that you couldn’t find in the original. The photography also goes out of its way to give these scenes the sort of colour tinted look that the hand-painted prints of old movies had. Even the editing is designed as much as possible to replicate these old films.

Truly, these sequences are delightful – and Scorsese’s joy in making them is evident in the camerawork, and the emotional force he gives to Méliès’ story (helped as well by Ben Kingsley’s sensitive underplaying as the depressed genius). It’s just a shame that he couldn’t get as engaged with the first part of the film. Hugo’s story is largely dramatically inert – in fact the whole plotline around Hugo feels like a hook on which to hang the second half of the film. As if Scorsese couldn’t make the second part of the film without making the first. 

That’s why this film doesn’t work for children, but works better for film-loving adults. The ins and outs of Hugo’s early story just aren’t that interesting – and we aren’t given any real reason to relate to Hugo or to feel any empathy for his journey (whatever that might be). In fact the film stretches this plot line long past any actual content – already I’m struggling to remember exactly what happened in the first hour of the film. This is no comment on the performances of Butterfield or Moritz, who are both very good (even if Moritz is saddled with sub-Hermione Grainger character traits). While it always looks great, it never really finds the heart to get us engaged with Hugo.

So Hugo is a film for cinema-fanatics. Scorsese directs with great invention – but it’s all too clear where his heart is: and that’s why the film failed so spectacularly as a kids’ film. Compare this to Toy Story 3say, and it’s clear which one most children are going to want to watch. However, if you want to see Scorsese make a charming film about his passions, one that is overlong but looks gorgeous, that playfully recreates the silent cinema era, even while its narrative is basically pretty dramatically inert, you’ll love it. There are moments in this film to treasure – it’s just not really for kids. Just because Scorsese made a film without someone’s head in a vice or zipped into a bodybag, doesn’t suddenly mean he’s going to find a new audience.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely explore the mysteries of the Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Robert Stephens (Sherlock Holmes), Colin Blakely (Dr John Watson), Geneviève Page (Gabrielle Valladon), Christopher Lee (Mycroft Holmes), Irene Handl (Mrs Hudson), Clive Revill (Rogozhin), Tamara Toumanova (Madame Petrova), Stanley Holloway (Gravedigger), Mollie Maureen (Queen Victoria), Catherine Lacey (Old Woman)

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes may just be the best Sherlock Holmes film you’ll see. It’s certainly one of the most original. Wilder’s semi-pastiche, described by Mark Gatiss as “both reverent and irreverent”, was a major box-office disaster at the time, but it’s a film that has grown richer and more enjoyable with age – particularly as we’ve caught up with its “fan fiction” style, its placing of the great detective in unusual emotional and social situations. 

Wilder’s film follows two “buried” cases of Sherlock Holmes, both suppressed by Watson. In the first (taking up the first quarter of the film), Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) and Dr Watson (Colin Blakely) are invited to a production of Swan Lakeby the Russian Royal Ballet, where a curious and unusual case is proposed to Holmes. In the second story, a mysterious woman suffering from amnesia (Geneviève Page) winds up on the doorstep of 221B Baker Street. Investigating who and what has brought her there leads into a case that covers continents, the upper echelons of the British government, and (possibly) the deeply hidden depths of Holmes’ own heart.

First off, it’s impossible to talk about Private Life without noting we only really have half the film. Not only did audiences not get it, nor did the studio. Both were expecting a traditional Holmes adaptation. Getting an amusing and wry exploration of Holmes’ psychology, built into a film where the great detective makes several errors, was categorically not that. So half the film was cut and chucked in the bin (including two whole cases). The footage no longer survives (there is an excellent recreation of what is left on Eureka’s new blu-ray) – but it’s a film that might have been.

It’s also a film that was apparently hell to make. Wilder had always been demanding – he demanded a completely faithful interpretation of his text, and often gave scrupulous line readings. It went to extremes here: epic rehearsals before every shot, with every line and movement dictated. For Stephens – a fragile alcoholic going through a divorce – it was too much, and part way through filming he attempted suicide. Shooting was delayed while he recovered, though Stephens’ pale, wan face needed to be overly made-up to compensate (in the opening scenes he genuinely looks like a drag act).

So you can’t forget the turmoil that brought it to the screen. But the end result (what remains) is largely a delight, even if it isn’t perfect. But it really is decades ahead of its time. Just like Sherlock (and it’s certainly the parent of that show), its main interest is not the case but the detective, his foibles and his emotional hinterland. Motored throughout by the wonderful chemistry between Stephens and Blakely (the two actors were good friends), it’s a wonderfully written film, full of wry humour and banter, mixed with moments of genuine heart and emotion. 

The film asks: who is Sherlock Holmes? Is he the cold fish he appears to be? While it doesn’t want to answer the enigma, it enjoys trying to unpeel those layers. Stephens’ Holmes is wry, witty, slightly fey, playful but also distant. He stands off from genuine intimacy and emotion – and why is that? As he spends time with Gabrielle Valadon, how much does he warm towards her – when he ruminates on his fears about trusting people, particularly women (in a marvellous late night conversation in an overnight train bunkbed), the film asks us to think: how damaged can this man who lives to investigate crimes but seems to have only one friend, be? It’s everything Sherlock took further: in fact the relationship between Holmes and Vardon has more than a few echoes in A Scandal in Belgravia.

The film’s real genius though is its opening short story, revolving around Holmes, a ballet company and a serious of unusual requests. This pastiche is very funny, very clever, beautifully played and crammed with invention and wit. The dialogue is beautiful, while both actors are perfect: Blakely is hilarious as a Watson full of joie de’vivre while Stephens’ drily amused Holmes works hard to never let surprise penetrate his raised eyebrow. The story goes down some mysterious alleyways – not least some curious questions around Holmes’ sexuality and experience with women. But it’s just about a perfect half hour of Holmesian pastiche: probably the best of its kind ever made.

The larger story doesn’t quite live up to it, but there are some beautiful moments in there, not least the growing bond between Holmes and Vardon in which nothing is ever said or done – and much is left open to interpretation – but where Holmes shows more of his humanity than he has perhaps ever done. The case itself is half humour, half expansion of Conan Doyle. By the end we are left asking ourselves how much on the back foot Holmes was for most of the case: and the case’s resolution eventually sniffs of satire. But the film itself ends on a bittersweet resolution, with Holmes facing the impact of emotions in a way he perhaps never has before.

Wilder’s film is sharp, witty and crammed with great scenes and jokes. It’s very well acted, particularly by Blakely as a hilarious Watson, full of good humour and bombast but with a sharp sense of cunning. He may not be as bright as Holmes, but he’s certainly bright enough to get the most out of life. Stephens is a little uncomfortable as Holmes (this film sparked a career nosedive that it took nearly 20 years for him to emerge from) but at certain moments he gives the part a really unique lightness masking an unknowable emotional hinterland.

It’s a film that’s easy to mistake for straight comedy, but it really isn’t. It’s a fascinating, entertaining and rewarding exploration of the leading character’s psyche, by writers who clearly know of what they speak. It throws in a case framework that smacks of the high-blown, Giant Rat of Sumatra-style cases Watson makes passing reference to in the stories. It’s a film that focuses on character and relationship – that captures a sense of friendship between Holmes and Watson that few other films have managed – and that spoofs the cannon while still feeling very true to it. 

It’s not perfect: it’s overlong and sometimes the pace drags or the sparkle fades. But Wilder and Diamond’s script has plenty of jokes and cannon knowledge (this was the first pastiche to explore Holmes’ cocaine use – and the psychological reasons for it) and has some terrific performances. Christopher Lee makes a wonderful urbane, whipper-thin Mycroft while Irene Handl is a wonderfully bumptious Mrs Hudson. Not only did it inspire Sherlock – it must also keep inspiring all fans of the great detective.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Gandalf prepares to take on many foes – not least the script and editing – in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield), Luke Evans (Bard), Evangeline Lilly (Tauriel), Orlando Bloom (Galadriel), Aiden Turner (Kili), Lee Pace (Thranduil), Ken Stott (Balin), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Ian Holm (Old Bilbo), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Hugo Weaving (Elrond)

I feel like I’m running out of things to say about this desperately flawed trilogy – but here we go… Peter Jackson finally finishes his great contractual obligation, serving up another film that expands out a slim couple of chapters of a children’s book into something that strains so heavily for the feel of something epic and world shattering, it feels like a constipated man struggling on the loo.

We’ve finally made it to the Lonely Mountain. Smaug is killed by Bard (Luke Evans) during his attack on Lake Town, while Thorin (Richard Armitage) seizes control of the fortune under the mountain. However, the mountain now becomes a struggle point between the dwarves and their allies: Bard and his people and Thranduil (Lee Pace) and his elves, who are all looking to gain control of its treasures. While Bilbo (Martin Freeman) attempts to make an increasingly maddened Thorin see sense, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) brings warning of an imminent attack by an army of Orcs – will this mutual enemy bring our heroes together at last?

The Battle of the Five Armies is the moment where you knew this sprawling, sausage-fest of a trilogy had lost what soul it had. Almost the entire runtime is given over to battle sequence, seems to go on forever and ever with no respite. We see a host of clashes that carry none of the poetry of The Lord of the Rings, and a host of characters we don’t really know fighting with each other. Frankly, it’s hard to care. It looks great, but it’s just empty spectacle, sound and fury signifying absolutely nothing at all. In fact, it’s all so unclear that watching this movie for a third time I still have absolutely no fucking idea what this battle is even about! What are the Orcs doing? Why are they attacking? 

As always character moments are constantly sacrificed. The dwarf company are ruthlessly trimmed of screen time–even Ken Stott’s Balin doesn’t get much of a look, bizarre as he’s been established previously as Thorin’s confidant. Apparently James Nesbitt nearly wept when he saw this film – not surprising since he must barely be on screen for more than five minutes. Crucial moments that should make us care about these characters are constantly lost: Thorin’s descent into madness occurs completely off camera, Gandalf’s struggle to keep the peace gets glanced over, Bilbo nearly gets completely lost in the shuffle from special effect to special effect.

Tragically, far too much screen time is given to two characters Jackson has parachuted into the film. Weaselly Lake Town official Alfrid is given seemingly endless scenes of “comic relief” – a shame since he’s about as funny as being hit in the mouth by a hammer. I understand Jackson must find this character funny, and that he felt some comic relief was needed amongst all the fighting – but quite frankly he’s wrong. Alfrid is not funny – I think you’d go a long way to find anyone who liked him – and secondly if they needed comic relief characters, why not let one of the dwarves fill that function rather than introducing a new character 2/3rds of the way into the story? 

The second character who gets far too much to do is our old friend Legolas. The elf’s plot line is given never-ending minutes of screen time, his struggles and conflicts given (it feels) even more screentime than Bilbo’s. Do we really need to see Legolas searching for the orcs? Do we really need to see him doing ridiculously impossible feats in the middle of combat? Are we given any reason to care about him at all, other than the fact we remember him from Lord of the Rings?

Legolas’ inclusion demonstrates almost everything wrong in this series. Did Jackson include so much of him because he didn’t need to think quite so much about what to do with the character, being already so familiar with him? When Legolas (at best a secondary supporting character in the story) has his battle with some random Orc, intercut (and even prioritised in the edit) over Thorin’s climactic battle with Azog, the clash the entire trilogy has been building towards, you know something is seriously wrong.

On top of which, Legolas’ inclusion undermines Jackson’s other big invention, the Legolas-Tauriel-Kili love triangle. Really this should be a Tauriel-has-to-marry-Legolas-but-wants-to-marry-Kili structure – that at least would work, right? We’d understand her struggle and division – and it would add a lot more weight to her feelings for Kili. Instead, Jackson is worried this might make Legolas look unsympathetic – so instead Tauriel is sorta in love with both with them, a confused, messy structure that makes no real sense. To add insult to injury, when Tauriel and Kili are threatened by random nasty Orc, who saves the day? Legolas. Who fights Tauriel’s battles for her? Legolas. Jackson introduces a love triangle, and then undermines it because he doesn’t want to criticise his beloved character. He introduces a female character, only to reduce her to a victim obsessed with lurve. It’s a disaster.

You feel Jackson threw in this plot because not a lot actually happens in this movie. Doubly annoying then that so many plots we do care about disappear so swiftly. The Arkenstone, the cause of so much struggle, is completely forgotten half-way through. The fate of Bard and the Lake Town survivors is glossed over. The dwarves get benched from the action for ages. The plotline around the Necromancer is wrapped up with embarrassing and confusing swiftness. Thorin’s plotline is rushed together at the edges, with the focus constantly on getting more fighting in shot.

It’s a real shame that the actors don’t get the time they deserve to really let their performances flourish. Armitage is, as always, superb as a Thorin who loses himself in greed and desire for gold, and becomes cruel and bitter before remembering his nobility. Martin Freeman is still great as Bilbo, honest, normal and delightful despite being given little to do. Ian McKellen still has all the Gandalf qualities of wisdom and grandfatherly authority. Among the rest of the cast, Luke Evans continues to be a stand-out as the noble Bard.

There are moments of action that really work. Smaug’s attack on Lake Town is the film’s dramatic highlight – shame its over in 12 minutes. But it’s brilliantly shot, has moments of heroics and looks great. Thorin and Azog’s battle really works because Thorin is just about the only character in the film we really care about. But much of the rest of the fighting is just silly – gravity-defying bashing (Legolas and Saruman are particularly guilty of this) or never-ending struggles in the battle itself – in which by the way, only men seem to be allowed to be seen doing anything brave.

The Battle of the Five Armies is in many ways a fitting conclusion to the series. Millions of dollars are spent on making a brilliantly designed and shot series of images. But no time is spent on making us care about anything. We invest almost nothing emotionally in the story at all. While we might be a bit sad at seeing people die, we know so little about many of them their deaths hardly stick with us. Why did Jackson not see this? Yes Lord of the Rings was a masterpiece and tough act to follow – but when you see the love and care dripping from every frame of that 12 hour trilogy, and then you move to this mess, you can’t help but think: where did it go wrong? It’s not a complete disaster – the films are always watchable – but they could have been so much more. Instead, they’re the bloated, incoherent footnotes to a great trilogy.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Martin Freeman goes on An Unexpected Journey in the first of Peter Jackson’s deeply flawed trilogy

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakensheild), Ken Stott (Balin), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), Aidan Turner (Kili), Dean O’Gorman (Fili), James Nesbitt (Bofur), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Ian Holm (Old Bilbo), Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Sylvester McCoy (Radagast), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Manu Bennett (Azog the Defiler), Lee Pace (Thranduil), Benedict Cumberbatch (Necromancer)

The little-loved Hobbit films are finished now. This may be a controversial statement, but looking back at the three films now, An Unexpected Journey is clearly the best of an average bunch, the only one that feels like it has some sort of story arc, where the padding isn’t too overbearing and we get some character moments. Despite all that, it’s (bless) a bit of a mess. A tragic missed opportunity, which are like bloated windy farts that follow through.

So. It’s three films. We all know it shouldn’t be. We all know it’s a slight kids’ book. So let’s take it as read that even this, the best of the bunch, is an over-extended three hour expansion of six chapters (six bloody chapters!) of the original kids’ fable. Never, at any point, does this feel like it needs to be a long film. Where is the depth and passion in this film? It’s a slow, slow, quick, quick, slow paced splat, which takes ages and ages and ages to get going and then runs through as many set-piece action scenes as possible. 

Why did Peter Jackson make these films? Honestly, watching it you feel he had a gun to his head. He can’t bring any love or depth of feeling to huge chunks of the film. The action scenes feel put together by a choreographer and designed to be as loud and broad as possible, rather than because they are being put together by a storyteller. 

Thirteen dwarves? This is one of the main reasons Jackson was worried about making this film. How could he make these characters distinctive? How could he build plot arcs and storylines for each one? The answer was he couldn’t. So he didn’t even bother. Now I know the Tolkien fans would have hit the roof, but for goodness’ sake would it not have been better for the good of the film to cut the number of dwarves down? So we could get to know them a bit? Because large numbers of these dwarves are indistinguishable from the other. Throughout the course of this film, as a stand-alone viewing experience, only Thorin and Balin stand out in any way as immediately recognisable. They are the only two who you can always identify. The rest? They just all mash into one. They don’t even really have distinctive moments. They are just a mass.

So you watch the overblown, overextended and yawn-worthy action and chase scenes and you just can’t get wrapped up in them. Because all we are doing is watching huge, time-consuming sequences with a mass of characters we can’t tell about, and even when we do, we don’t have any emotional connection to them. The dwarves are all sort of refugees I guess, which gives us some sort of link to them, but it’s the same back story for each one. It’s indistinctive and unclear. If Jackson had gone with his gut and cut some of these out, then the extended running time could have been used to build establishing character moments, to give pay-offs and plot arcs for them. Instead, he kept them all – and never develops any of them.

Those action scenes do go on forever. I know they all come from the book, I get it, but there is no tension in any of them. Dwarves bounce, twirl and fly all over the place. Never at any point do they really feel like they are in danger. A run over the field from some wolves – yawn. The chase sequence through the Goblin kingdom in a mine – double yawn. The second is particularly bad as it brings back strong memories of the LOTR sequence in the Mines of Moria, which had a hundred times the excitement and thrills of this. 

In fact that reminiscence is a big problem for a large chunk of the film. The Hobbit is a kids’ book, but The Lord of the Rings is an adult fantasy novel. The attempt to tie these two different tones and genres of novel is a constant hiccup. So we get the dwarves pratting around and bouncing about, in moments that seem childish and cheap. And then we get doom-laden conversations, and dark over-blown musings about the stakes of the world – stakes that don’t tie in, in any way, with the content of the action, adventure story we are seeing in the film. Then there are blatant, clumsy references back to the original – did anyone else groan when Elijah Wood wandered onto the screen? Appearances from Blanchett, Weaving and Lee are all shoe-horned in. At least Ian Holm gets to do some lovely narration. But all these moments simply remind you that you could be watching a better film trilogy than this.

But despite all this, An Unexpected Journey isn’t all bad. Yes it hares about so quickly, with no depth at all, at great over blown length, but it has its moments and it is just about entertaining enough. Jackson can still do some of these moments well – the flashback that opens the film to Smaug’s attack on the mountain is very well done; in fact it has more inspired film-making and tension than nearly anything else that follows. Yes the arrival of the dwarves takes a lot longer to get going than the film needs – but at least it’s pretty charming, and Jackson’s whimsical love of Hobbiton is pretty clear. Shame I don’t think he brought any more invention or sense of charm to much of the rest.

It’s also helped by the fact there are some damn fine performances in there. Martin Freeman is just about perfect casting as Bilbo; he’s charming, vulnerable, slightly-out-of-his depth, brave, very English – he’s great. Ian McKellen practically is Gandalf by now, and he hasn’t lost his understanding of the character’s slightly grubby, grandfatherly charm. Richard Armitage as Thorin is brilliant, mixing a gruff, maverick quality alongside his pride and resolution – and his intense sense of loyalty. Of the rest of the cast, not many get a look-in, being either cameos or underdeveloped, but Ken Stott stands out as the kindly, wise Balin.

The film is also possibly the only one of the three that truly stands alone in some way. It has some form of plot arc behind it in the relationship between Thorin and Bilbo, and the lack of trust Thorin has for Bilbo, his unwillingness to accept him into the group. Similarly, Bilbo has to learn to embrace his role with the dwarves and his place in the company. This is actually a pretty touching and carefully done dynamic, that culminates not only in the film’s most involving (and tellingly low-key) action sequence, but also a tender moment of acceptance from the previously stand-offish Thorin (brilliantly sold by Armitage). 

This is a great plot arc. It also has a negative impact on the next two films – because this is the emotional climax in many ways of the trilogy – and it came in the first film of three! With this major emotional plot line between two of our core characters resolved by the end of the first third of the sequence, what is there to do with the rest of it? It’s a major loss for the rest of the trilogy. 

But for this stand-alone film it works well. Because it reminds you there is some heart in this film – heart missing from the next two films – because it is founded on an understandable emotional bond. The rest of the company may be indistinguishable, but at least Thorin and Bilbo move us. The best moments in these films are founded on feeling and character investment. Andy Serkis makes a great return as Gollum in an entertaining exchange with Freeman. The clash between Thorin and Azog is the most engrossing in the film because it has a genuine history to it established in the film, that a zillion clashes with the Goblin King, or a pack of wolves or faceless goblins never do. 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a decent movie. It has flashes of excellence in it. It’s got some good performances. Peter Jackson is still able to shoot a decent scene, even if you don’t really feel his heart is completely in it. The performances are uniformly good, and some are excellent. But the whole thing feels like an overblown missed opportunity. There was a chance to do something magic here with this Hobbit series. But this wasn’t it. You can’t cast the same trick twice.