Tag: Ian McKellen

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The Fellowship face one final battle in the conclusion of Jackson’s stunning trilogy

Director: Peter Jackson

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

By the time the third film in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy came out, we all knew this was something very special. Readers of Empiremagazine voted it the 9th Best Film Ever Made the month it was released. It was showered with awards, winning every Oscar it was nominated for (11, including three for Jackson) and grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. The Return of the King is a landmark – and it’s a stunning sign-off for a triumphant trilogy.

Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are even closer now to Mount Doom, guided by the treacherous former ring-bearer Gollum (Andy Serkis). While they must negotiate the dangers of Mordor, Sauron has sent his forces out to conquer Middle Earth. The city of Minas Tirith is his target. Facing an army of thousands of orcs, the city’s only hope is if Gandalf (Ian McKellen) can defend it long enough to allow Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) – the man destined to become king of Gondor – to lead a relief force. Will Frodo resist temptation and destroy the ring? And will Aragorn be able to defend the city and become its king?

I think it’s fair to say, with books as widely loved as this, no one is going to agree with every single decision Jackson and fellow writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens made. Here again, changes have been made – famously the scouring of the Shire that closes the novel has been cut (with Saruman dispatched in the opening scenes of the extended edition). What the screenplay seeks to do is increase the pace and tension – it’s probably why Denethor, leader of Gondor, is reinvented as an antagonist (of which more later) and events charge ahead with a relentless forward motion. There is no stopping to catch breath here: there is always a new crisis to solve.

Where changes have been made, they largely have a positive impact. For example, the film takes the decision to introduce conflict between Frodo and Sam – as well as increasing further the scheming malice of Gollum – by having the disturbed ring-addict manipulate the two hobbits into a falling out. This allows Frodo to enter the lair of the giant spider Shelob (a disgustingly visceral creation) alone. Not only does this make Frodo more vulnerable, it also increases the bravery and nobility of Sam, by having him return to save the day (and allow for a classic Hollywood nick-of-time entrance).

The change also adds to the devious brilliance of Gollum, once again superbly played by Andy Serkis. After spending much of The Two Towers bringing out the depth and sadness in this fragile character, The Return of the King carefully shows how this doesn’t excuse his fundamental ruthlessness. The film opens with a flashback showing Smeagol finding the ring, serving as a neat reminder of the Ring’s fundamental wickedness: within seconds its pushes Smeagol to murder his best friend. The sequence following Smeagol’s moral and physical collapse neatly reminds us of its danger and also how close Frodo is to all this happening to him.

Frodo’s suffering and painful growing maturity is more central here. Wood brilliantly charts Frodo’s continuing moral and emotional decline under the Ring’s influence. Increasingly a physical wreck, Jackson carefully lets the suspicion grow that Frodo’s not going to be capable of chucking the ring away. Balancing this, Astin’s Sam Gamgee (the most heartfelt and affecting performance) becomes the moral centre, self-sacrificing, optimistic and fundamentally decent – a beacon of light in the grimness of Mordor.

Again, Jackson ups the stakes, with TROK taking place on the grandest scale you could imagine. The battle sequences are breath-taking in their depth and ambition. But, as with the other films, Jackson knows the scale counts for nothing if you didn’t care about the characters at its heart. So, while the events are epically earth-shattering, the film always brings us back to simple emotion. Even in the siege of Gondor, it finds time for a quiet moment of humanity between Gandalf and Pippin.

But those battle scenes are still stunning. The orc armies are terrifyingly vast, while the strafing run of the airborne Nazgul (soldiers snatched from towers are thrown hundreds of feet to their deaths) adds to the sense that victory is hopeless. Soldiers fight desperately for their, and others, lives. The film even tops the Two Towers’ charge of the Rohirrim with a stunningly rousing charge involving thousands of horses into the massed ranks of Orc (and tops that minutes later with a second change accompanied by a sweeping camera movement and swelling musical cue that is just about perfect).

Jackson brilliantly communicates how much the stakes are against our heroes. We really feel their bravery and desperation as they take on impossible odds – and it’s that which really gives the scenes their power, not the scale or the special effects. No moment is lost without bringing us back to moments of bravery and vulnerability from our leads. There are powerful moments of warmth, kindness, loyalty and generosity throughout. It’s finally what makes the film so effective – it’s a tribute to the power of friendship.

It’s all powered with a beautifully operatic score by Howard Shore. Shore’s music captures perfectly the world of Tolkien. A few years after this, an ill-fated musical version of LOTR was launched – and flopped. Because, essentially, Shore has already turned these novels into a sort of opera-slash-concerto, with perfect themes for everything from martial orcs to whimsical hobbits. Some of the musical cues are so luscious and stirring, they make you want to stand and applaud. The music accompanying Gandalf’s rescue of the retreat from Osgiliath is a wonderful highlight, the triumphant and tense music for the Rohirrim charge is stunning, the score for our heroes leaving for the Undying Lands beautiful. LOTR is so beautifully scored, Shore’s work so gorgeous, LOTRis a film you could certainly watch with just the music playing and still understand it perfectly.

Of course, there are things you can criticise. Denethor – in the novel a portrait of corrupted nobility, his intelligence and pride turned to despair – is repositioned here as a sort of heartless WW1 General, gobbling food while his soldiers die and embracing a nihilistic death wish (although this change does allow for the absolutely beautiful Gandalf/Pippin beacon lighting sequence, in defiance of Denethor). It’s not helped by Noble’s lip-smacking performance, stripping the character of nuance. It’s gives Gandalf more to struggle against, but it’s a crude approach for a character who would have worked better as a mis-guided elitist rather than a crass, hissable villain.

Lots of people have had a pop at the multiple endings as well. Jackson certainly teases us a little too much with fades to black. But I’d argue the lack of a definitive full stop adds greater depth to the story. Tolkien was partly inspired by his experiences in WW1. In that war, the hell of the trenches came to an end, but people’s lives didn’t end with a triumphant parade. Instead, they needed to return home and adjust back into civilian life. I think it’s powerfully affecting that the hobbits return to an unscoured Shire, which hasn’t changed at all while they (and us) have seen Middle Earth torn apart. And it adds real force to why Frodo, in particular, can’t return to “life as normal”.

It gives a powerfully moving, bitter-sweet ending and, I think, brings out a rich, emotional message from Tolkien’s story often missed: Frodo and his friends are fighting to protect their home, but find that they have changed so much they can never settle back into that home in the same way again. It’s something soldiers serving in WW1 experienced, and it feels fitting echoed in Jackson’s LOTR.

Jackson’s LOTR will always spark conversations around faithfulness and otherwise to the source material. Not everyone will agree with every choice. But surely no one can argue with the majesty, scale and wonder of these films, the sublimely perfect casting choices, or the loving detail in every touch of the design. When I first saw Return of the King in the cinema, the audience got to their feet and applauded. You can’t blame them: watch this and you are watching something very special, a true landmark in cinema.

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.

Mr Holmes (2015)

Ian McKellen is an ageing Sherlock trying to understand his past in Mr Holmes

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Ian McKellen (Sherlock Holmes), Laura Linney (Mrs Munro), Milo Parker (Roger Munro), Hiroyuki Sanada (Taiki Umezaki), Hattie Morahan (Ann Kelmot), Patrick Kennedy (Thomas Kelmot), Roger Allam (Dr Barrie), Phil Davis (Inspector Gilbert), Frances de la Tour (Madame Schirmer)

It’s 1946 and over 35 years since Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) last investigated a case. Living in retirement with his bees in Devon, with his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her inquisitive son Roger (Milo Parker), 93-year-old Holmes’ final “case” is to try and combat the deterioration of his own mental faculties. This focuses on his attempts to remember the details of his final case, investigating the wife (Hattie Morahan) of a client, a case where he knows something went terribly wrong, but cannot recall the exact details.

Condon’s film is a quiet, gentle piece which primarily becomes a character study of the Great Detective, trying to locate the man inside the thinking machine. This is a Holmes unlike any other, haunted by past mistakes and scared of losing the intellectual abilities that have been his principal purpose. Condon’s film also makes clear that much of what we know about Holmes was a cheeky “embellishment” by Watson in his stories – from the pipe and deerstalker to the address of 221B. This is a Holmes who failed all his life to form personal connections, and found this problem magnified by becoming a real-life fictional character, a person who knows no-one but is known by everyone.

This fascinating re-evaluation of Holmes is helped by Ian McKellen’s superb performance (in his second collaboration with Condon after Gods and Monsters). McKellen’s ability to convey the intellectual sharpness of Holmes is matched by his vulnerability and fragility as he feels those same powers begin to fail. This is a Holmes who can still sharply deduce where someone has been from a quick analysis, but needs to write Roger’s name on his cuff to help him remember whom he is talking to. McKellen’s performance slowly reveals the longing for emotional connection and his own regrets at the isolation that has dominated his own life.

The expressiveness of Ian McKellen’s eyes comes into play here, both their capacity for joy – and this is a Holmes who takes an intense pleasure in his own acuity – and the way McKellen is able to allow these eyes to glaze over with forgetfulness and flashes of senility. He also forms a wonderful bond with Milo Parker (very good, genuine and real) as Roger, the two of them forming an odd couple relationship that also gives Holmes a beginning of an understanding of what he has missed from a life without family and friends. 

Alongside this fascinating character study, the actual storyline is fairly tame – but then that’s hardly the point. The modern day plotline takes in physical and mental decline, isolation, fracturing family bonds and post-war Japan (where Holmes travels in search of “Prickly ash” a plant he hopes will help to counteract his mental decline). But it’s really a quiet framework to change this Holmes into a man who sees the world only in terms of logic and puzzles, and must learn to see the humanity and emotions that underlie people’s actions. It’s a Holmes who must learn to appreciate feelings, to express them and to tell “white lies” to save people from pain.

It’s no surprise that the past sequences – where a spry McKellen also plays Holmes in his late 50s – also revolve around this. The investigation cheekily features spiritualism (the pseudo-science that obsessed Conan Doyle in his later days) but the real point is Holmes failing to understand the pain and loss that underlie the desire to believe in the possibility of life after death – that loss is a traumatic event that cannot be hand-waved away with a presentation of facts, but a has a real lasting impact on people. Hattie Morahan captures this wonderfully, in a quietly emotional performance as a grieving mother.

The final resolution of this I found slightly less satisfying – perhaps because I thought of actual “canon” stories that showed Holmes expressing far more emotional intelligence than this film gives him the credit for understanding here (e.g. The Yellow Face). I’m also not sure if this failure would really have left any Holmes punishing himself with 35 years of isolation with bees. But it fits with the film’s concept of a Holmes who finds himself pained by loneliness.

This loneliness is hammered home throughout. Mycroft, Hudson and Watson are long dead. Watson himself is implied to be a man who never understood Holmes, that the “fictionalised” Holmes became more real to him than the flesh-and-blood man. That on Watson’s part the friendship became about the stories, with Holmes always triumphant, rather than reflecting who he was. Holmes finds this disconnection between his inner self and the world’s perception hammered home at every turn – at one point the film shows him watching a Rathbone-esque film (where he is played by Nicholas Rowe, the actor from Young Sherlock Holmes), where the case that haunts him plays out with a traditional ease. Completing this disconnection, Watson remains unseen in the film: a stranger whom Holmes was tied to forever.

All this makes for a thought-provoking film, with a delightful performance from McKellen making a truly unique and original screen Holmes. There are a host of fabulous supporting performances – Laura Linney does fine work as his insecure, lonely housekeeper who feels she is losing her son to the detective – and the film is a gloriously entertaining Sunday afternoon treat, which will make you think again about a man whom the whole world knows, but who may not know himself.

The Good Liar (2019)

McKellen and Mirren excel in this enjoyable confidence trick caper The Good Liar

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Ian McKellen (Roy Courtnay), Helen Mirren (Betty McLeish), Russell Tovey (Steven), Jim Carter (Vincent), Lucian Msamati (Beni), Mark Lewis Jones (Bryn), Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson (Vlad)

The truth can be a difficult thing to grasp. Particularly when so many people are skilled at twisting and turning it for their own purposes. Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) is one of the best in the business, a selfish and greedy con man who preys on the vulnerable and the arrogant unlike, ruthless in is business dealings and with anyone who tries to muscle in on his business. His latest mark is Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), a lonely widow who has inherited a huge fortune from her late husband. Meeting Betty through a “lonely hearts” online dating agency, Roy skilfully inveigles his way into her life and her home. But is all as it seems to Roy?

The Good Liar is an entertaining and enjoyable con trick of a film, that sets up its stall very much like a number of other films in this genre. We are presented with a picture of the conman at work, and shown many of the tricks and hoodwinks that the film will practice on us, being worked out in practice by the conman early in the film. It’s possible to see how the joins work – and do find your expectations being carefully prepped – but the film is entertaining enough that you are happy for it to let you try and lead you down the deceptive garden path even as it points out a few trips along the way.

A large part of the success is down to the brilliance of the two leading performances. Ian McKellen is at possibly his very best as the genial, amusing, waspish Roy who we only slowly begin to realise is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, with a line in casual cruelty and violence. It takes a great actor like McKellen, to play so successfully a consummate actor (and liar) as Roy, and never seem either too forced or overplaying the hand. His Roy has several excellent lines, and also a brilliant ability to look and sound genuine and heartfelt at one moment and shift gears to ruthless coldness the next. It’s a superb performance, wonderfully entertaining in its delight in its own villainy. You almost want to forgive Roy his essential vileness, such is his surface charm and McKellen’s waspish delight in playing such an unrepentantly horrible man. McKellen has done his best film work working with Condon and this film might be his best yet.

Mirren matches him well as the mark, a considerate, intelligent and decent woman. Mirren has a difficult job here, for reasons that would perhaps be spoilers, although I think it is safe to say that most viewers going into a film like this would expect that it would have a few cards up its sleeves. Needless to say Mirren is perhaps not all she seems, but she handles the difficult balancing act of seeming one thing and suggesting enough of another, that the final reveals never come as a surprise or seem inconsistent with her characterisation throughout the film. 

Instead the film takes us on a delightful dance where we know that something is going on that we don’t know about or can’t see – and playfully the film effectively shows us the mechanisms of the con very early on as Roy and his business partner Vincent (an excellent Jim Carter) carry out another confidence game on some other victims. But Condon’s playful film lets us know enough that something is happening that Roy can’t even begin to guess at, while also allowing us to enjoy his confidence, arrogance and fast-thinking willingness to dance from lie to lie depending on the mood. 

The one problem the film might have is that the final reveal of what is going on is based on information that is not delivered early in the film, but instead dropped on us at the end in an info-dump. While it makes sense that the film wishes to play its cards close to its chest, it perhaps would have been more satisfying to have little bit more of the information sprinkled throughout the film, enough for us to have a bit of a chance of piecing together they why before we are told. On reflection the film gives us moments that point towards the big picture, even if never enough information is given.

But the film still works because it has a devilish charm and waspish wit, and a delightful performance of gleeful devilry from McKellen, in one of his best roles yet. Making a superb pairing with Mirren, Condon’s enjoyable film hinges on the success of its actors and its enjoyment of the tricky narrative sleight-of-hand that con films can do so well.

All is True (2018)

Kenneth Branagh plays the Bard himself in this engrossing, and rather moving, biography

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Kenneth Branagh (William Shakespeare), Judi Dench (Anne Hathaway), Ian McKellen (Earl of Southampton), Kathryn Wilder (Judith Shakespeare), Lydia Wilson (Susannah Shakespeare), Hadley Fraser (John Hall), Jack Colgrave Hirst (Tom Quiney), Gerard Horan (Ben Jonson)

There are few actors alive associated as much with Shakespeare as Kenneth Branagh. So it was probably only a matter of time before he played the man himself. Returning to smaller, more intimate projects after some colossal Hollywood epics, Branagh’s film is a beautifully shot, gentle and elegiac drama about loss and family life.

After the burning down of the Globe Theatre in June 1613 during a production of Shakespeare’s final play Henry VIII (otherwise known as All is True), William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) returns home to Stratford-upon-Avon. There he must confront long-existing tensions with his wife Anne (Judi Dench) and daughters Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susannah (Lydia Wilson), and face the raw grief of the loss of his son Hamnet 18 years ago.

The script is intelligent and well thought out by Ben Elton, weaving a bit of fiction and sensitive theorising between the lines of what we know about Shakespeare’s final days. It makes for something that I will admit is not always awash with pace or events, but does have a quiet, magnetic emotional force that eventually casts a sort of spell.

It’s a film that gently explores the dynamics and tensions of family, and the all-pervading power of grief and how it can colour the relations between those left behind. Made worse of course by the patriarch of this family having effectively lived on another planet for the last 30 years, coming back so rarely from London that he now hardly knows the people he left behind (a sense of isolation that several skilful shots at the start establish). Especially when that patriarch is a genius, who is out of place and uncertain about where he lies in relation to the family. Nearing the end of his career, Shakespeare wants to know what it has been for and who will inherit whatever legacy he has left.

And that is particularly complex in the sense that he has no son to continue the family name, and no-one in his family (most of whom are illiterate) who can continue his artistic legacy. In death, young Hamnet has been sanctified by Shakespeare, made into a young proto-genius, a perfect son who was has set to continue his legacy. It’s blinded him to the qualities or depths of his other children, and powered an obsession in many of his later works with the loss of children. While the rest of the family have learned to set Hamnet aside, Shakespeare still mourns him as if he died yesterday – griefs that seem as tied in with the lack of future he sees ahead for his heirless family. 

So we get a series of heart-felt and universal vignettes as Shakespeare channels his loss into building a garden for Hamnet, and is eventually forced into confronting deep-rooted truths about himself and his family. The film is punctuated with his speaking to the ghost of his lost son, but he seems as unable to understand him still as he is to understand his family. His conversations with them are based around lost memories, faded past and a total inability to see the people they have become. He seems equally lost in the petty dynamics of the town, so alien to him from the larger concerns of London.

Much of this works so well as the film is so beautifully played by an exceptionally assembled cast. Branagh leads the film superbly with a restrained, quiet, contemplative performance with elements of comedy in among the sensitive touches. The make-up job takes a few beats to get used to, but once you are past that, the film focuses in on “the truth” below the surface with Shakespeare. Branagh gives Shakespeare a rich, sad inner life, a life that faces two traumas – the loss of the theatre he built, leading on to finally confronting the truths behind the loss of his son and the damage it has caused his family. Proud, intelligent, sensitive but also blind to so much, Branagh’s Shakespeare is an exquisite performance of great intellect, married to very everyday concerns.

It’s a balance that is explored in one of the film’s finest scenes, in which Shakespeare meets with the Earl of Southampton, played with scene-stealing charisma by Ian McKellen. Southampton for his part questions the Bard’s obsession with such middle-class concerns as status and money (from his comfortable position of being loaded) and clearly understands the greatness of Shakespeare in the way no one else really can. Shakespeare can’t feel in the same way that he has led a small life, and the film clearly addresses head-on his own sexual attraction to Southampton, present from the start in his giddy excitement at the Earl’s arrival. Southampton, aged, seems surprised and almost touched by Shakespeare’s continued love – gently turning him down. It’s part of the complex interior world that film explores around the poet – a man obsessed with social position and concerns of others, who was still willing to express his love for another man.

The film draws superb performances from the rest of the cast as well, with Judi Dench extremely good as the sensible, dedicated, long-suffering Anne. Kathryn Wilder is superb as Shakespeare’s overlooked daughter Judith with Lydia Wilson also fine as the more conventional Susannah. The rest of the cast are equally strong.

The film is beautifully shot, with the interiors lit with candles and the outside shots showing a marvellous inspiration from paintings that mount the film with a handsome beauty. While the film is not always blessed with pace, and has a feel at time of a sort of heritage-laced Bergman film, it carries without a certain emotional force that really ends up delivering a tender picture of difficult family dynamics and a man who has spent his life telling stories beginning to understand the story of his own life. Directed with a real measured passion from Branagh, and very well acted, there is a richness and depth to this that makes it one of Branagh’s finest films.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou stumble through the dire The Da Vinci Code, possibly one of the dullest films ever made

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Tom Hanks (Robert Langdon), Audrey Tautou (Sophie Neveu), Ian McKellen (Sir Leigh Teabing), Jean Reno (Captain Bezu Fache), Paul Bettany (Silas), Alfred Molina (Bisoph Aringarosa), Jürgen Prochnow (André Vernet), Étienne Chicot (Lieutenant Jérôme Collet), Jean-Yves Berteloot (Remy Jean), Jean-Pierre Marielle (Jacques Saunière)

In 2003 the world went a little crazy. Maybe it was all the buzz of conspiracy that seemed to be everywhere. Maybe people wanted a bit of escapism from the misery of our post-9/11 world. Or maybe there is just no accounting for taste. But inexplicably, a staggeringly poorly written thriller by a hack author, peddling a tired old conspiracy, became one of the most popular books of all time. Yup, ladies and gentlemen, it was a time of silliness, paranoia and poor taste. It was the time of The Da Vinci Code.

When the curator of the Louvre (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is found dead in the museum, with his body covered with bizarre self-inflicted wounds and symbols, visiting Professor of Symbology from Harvard Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is called in to consult. Langdon quickly finds himself the main suspect and on the run, aided only by the victim’s granddaughter Sophie (Audrey Tautou in a truly thankless part of continual question asking, devoid of any agency). Following a trail of bizarre clues, Langdon ends up investigating a conspiracy that leads to the heart of the Catholic Church – could the Church be founded on a lie? Could Jesus Christ have in fact been married to Mary Magdalene? Could she have been his intended heir? Did she have a child? Has a secret society run (at various times) by the Knights Templar, Leonardo Da Vinci and Isaac Newton worked since the dawn of time to protect the secret? Of course they haven’t, but that’s not going to stop the film.

Okay let’s get the main event out of the way. This is a terrible film. But it’s not terrible for the reason you might think. I mean, sure, it’s poorly scripted bobbins, with poorly developed ciphers for characters, and it peddles a conspiracy theory which is total, illogical nonsense from top to bottom. But that’s not the main reason. The main reason this film is terrible is that it is so unbelievably fucking boring.

The film is an utterly faithful, practically scene-by-scene reproduction of Dan Brown’s book. And it immediately reveals how little Brown knows about how to write a good thriller. The film has two or three action “set pieces” or moments of tension – at least, they would be tense, if only there were any stakes to the situation, or the characters’ motivations or the peril they’re in made the slightest bit of sense. They don’t. You’ll barely remember the car chase, or any of the moments where the heroes are held at gunpoint. None of the characters have any definable personalities, other than what they are invested with by the actors playing them. But then that’s no surprise from a novel where the lead character is defined solely by being brainy, having a Mickey Mouse watch (such a character!) and (film rights pleading ahoy) looking like Harrison Ford.

Just like Dan Brown’s turgid original, this film quickly turns into a series of scenes where characters fling exposition at each other to whizz us through a series of sub-par brainteasers and anagrams, which are only solvable with information the characters have but the audience doesn’t (hardly making it a fun thing to play along with). You’ll find yourself wishing for those anagrams back though, once they move on to spunking the novel’s bizarre conspiracy theory into our ears. The low point of this is when Ian McKellen’s polio-suffering billionaire historian (a billionaire historian! Who has a private plane! Of course he does…) tees up a handy PowerPoint presentation he just happened to have sitting around ready, and regurgitates all the mystic mumbo-jumbo that the film tries to pass off as fact.

I’m sure I don’t need to recap the nonsense of this film, but seeing it boiled down from the book is a real reminder that Brown clearly read widely but with no depth. For starters, most of his understanding of everything from the church, to the Templars, to the history of Europe is bogged down in inaccuracy and misinterpretation. By the time the film is claiming that Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity angered the church you’ll have lost all ability to take anything the film says seriously (for the record, the Catholic church didn’t have a problem with gravity, and even if they did, as an Anglican living in a Protestant country, Newton wouldn’t have given a damn anyway).

None of the film’s (or book’s) ideas are even that original – it was all spewed forth in a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail (several characters here have names that are anagrams of the writers and editors of these books) in 1982. The idea of Jesus having a whole line of secret descendants is arrant bollocks. The idea of a secret society working to protect this secret is even more stupid (it was revealed after the publication of Holy Blood, Holy Grail to be a total hoax, swallowed whole by that book’s writers). There is not a shred of reality here – rather, it’s typical paranoia and anti-establishment bollocks repackaged as dark reveal.

This is before we even touch on the – heaven help us – “art analysis”. The dark hints of conspiracy in The Last Supper by Da Vinci boil down to: (a) there is no Grail in this painting, (b) the bloke to the left of Jesus looks a bit like a girl so must be Mary Magdelene (“a hint of bosom” McKellen tells us playfully), (c) there is an inverted triangle between Christ and this man/woman – so surely a sign of the female dominance! The fact that the painting shows only 12 disciples and Jesus – meaning that if Mary was there, it should show 14 people not 13 – isn’t considered worth mentioning. But then that’s par for the course for the film’s bullshit clues “discovered” in works of art to support the film’s bullshit, anti-Catholic agenda (the church being staffed in this film exclusively by shadowy, Bond-villain types, with a ruthless agenda for extremist Catholicism and murderous Albino hit-monks they dispatch at will). Give me a break.

But if the film had packaged this all up in a gleefully silly, high energy story, it could still have been an entertaining watch. Unfortunately, it’s completely and utterly boring. It goes on (and on) for almost two and a half hours, and in between unengaging lectures and tedious dialogue scenes it drags like you wouldn’t believe. It’s almost impossible to get engaged in anything at all, and it’s really not helped by the flat, dimly lit, for-the-money direction from Ron Howard. There is no zip or fun about the film whatsoever, as if the book’s massive popularity made the producers worried that if they treated the book like an action adventure yarn, or a fun bit of nonsense, then it might offend people. Instead they treat this nonsense with a deathly reverence usually reserved for Biblical epics that’s fatal for the viewing experience of the entire film. 

It’s supremely dull, very self-important, and for all the hard work of an interesting cast of actors (who do their very best) it’s a complete, yawn-filled, pile of stinking crap. As the man said: “Holy Blood? Holy shit.”

Plenty (1985)

Charles Dance and Meryl Streep endure marital misery in the bleak, oblique and uninvolving David Hare drama Plenty

Director: Fred Schepisi

Cast: Meryl Streep (Susan Traherne), Charles Dance (Raymond Brock), Tracey Ullman (Alice Park), John Gielgud (Sir Leonard Darwin), Sting (Mick), Ian McKellen (Sir Andrew Charleson), Sam Neill (Lazar)

David Hare’s 1970s play Plenty looked at the impact of peace on the war generation. A “state of the nation” story on the growth of prosperity in the post-war era, and the return of many to the humdrum reality of life with Britain’s importance as a world power in rapid decline, led to isolation, anger and depression. It’s a shame that much of that really doesn’t come across in this buttoned-up, murky and unclear social drama, with a hard-to-follow plot and a hard-to-like central character.

Susan Traherne (Meryl Streep) is an SOE courier in France during the Second World War, who has a one-night stand with fellow SOE operative Lazar (Sam Neill) which has a profound effect on her. After the war, she marries Foreign Office civil servant Raymond Brock (Charles Dance), but is unable to find a purpose and contentment in regular civilian life. As the years tick by, and their surroundings grow ever more plentiful, Susan becomes more and more unhappy, difficult and demanding.

The central issue with Plenty (I can’t comment on the play, having never seen it) is that Meryl Streep creates possibly one of the least likeable leading performance you are going to see. Perhaps mistaking Britishness for cut-glass chill – or perhaps it’s the character – Streep’s Susan is brittle, bitter, angry, annoying and infuriating. She complains about everything around her, she lashes out at people, she sulks and whines with no self-insight, she constantly makes life difficult for those around her (most of whom are unbelievably patient) and she is almost impossible to work out. 

While the film perhaps intends her to be as sort-of PTSD sufferer, with undiagnosed personality disorders, who cannot reconcile the shallowness of her life with the excitement of war service, I’m not sure this comes across. All we really see is her deeply irritating self. We don’t get a sense of her war service – we see her breakdown early in the film in France – and her relationship with Lazar remains so ill-defined we are unclear what impact it had on her, other than part of a halcyon memory. The film’s final scene is a flashback to the end of the war: Susan watching a sunrise on a French hill dreaming of her life being full of days like this. That scene would have been helpful earlier – it’s the only time we see her optimistic or likeable in the film, and it gets lost by placing it at the end. With it in order we could have warmed to her more.

Instead she remains a shrill presence, in a hard to relate to film that never really makes clear whether we are meant to empathise with Susan, or find her as frustrating as some of the characters do. The film also fails to make this enigma part of its viewing design – I don’t feel like having the lines blurred made the film a richer experience, just one it was harder to engage in. Schepisi’s directing style is very cold and distant – from the slow camera moves, to the tight close ups on Susan at key moments, to the deliberate lack of clear time line (each scene moves on weeks, months or years from the previous one with only a few design and dialogue hints to suggest the change).

Combined with Hare’s indefinable script – crammed with elliptical conversations, unclear emotional and dramatic points, and political points delivered with a querying shrug – it makes for a film that is very hard work to engage with – and doesn’t offer much to reward the viewer if they do. 

What pleasures there are come from the performers. Charles Dance is good as Susan’s long-suffering husband – far from a domineering patriarch, his only real crime seems to be that he is a bit boring. Ian McKellen makes a great cameo as a senior civil servant, coolly and calmly telling Susan the errors of her thinking. Sting is an odd choice (I suspect his presence helped the film get backing) and Tracey Ullman does tend to go too far as Susan’s bohemian but more emotionally restrained friend.

John Gielgud steals the show. He is simply superb as Brock’s boss, an old-school diplomat who is, at first, a figure of fun with his Edwardian values but whom events (in particular Suez) reveal to have firm principles. Gielgud also gets most of the film’s best lines, while his quiet air of polite dignity is both endearing and admirable. His delivery of the following line to a tedious bore of a party guest basically is the high point of the movie: “But perhaps before I go, I may nevertheless set you right on a point of fact. Ingmar Bergman is not a bloody Norwegian, he is a bloody Swede.”

But there aren’t enough pleasures like this in this overbearing, rather trying film that never really decides what point it’s trying to make. I think it’s something about wealth and discontent and the more selfish and scrambling build of the post-war generation towards Thatcherism. But I’m really not sure. And to be honest I’m not sure I care.

Scandal (1989)

Joanne Whalley and John Hurt get unwisely wrapped up in the Profumo affair in Scandal

Director: Michael Caton-Jones

Cast: John Hurt (Stephen Ward), Joanne Whalley (Christine Keeler), Bridget Fonda (Mandy Rice-Davies), Ian McKellen (John Profumo), Leslie Phillips (Lord Astor), Britt Ekland (Mariella Novotny), Jeroen Krabbé (Eugene Ivanov), Daniel Massey (Mervyn Griffith-Jones), Roland Gift (Johnny Edgecombe), Jean Alexander (Mrs Keeler), Deborah Grant (Valerie Hobson), Alex Norton (Inspector), Ronald Fraser (Justice Marshall), Paul Brooke (Sergeant), Keith Allen (Reporter)

In 1963 the British Government was nearly destroyed by a sex scandal. John Profumo, Minister for War, was widely suspected of conducting an affair with Christine Keeler (a former show girl turned society figure) at the same time as she was sleeping with Russian naval attaché Eugene Ivanov. Profumo denied it to the House of Commons. A few weeks later he confessed he had lied and resigned from Parliament. The scandal shook the country to the core, and led to an exhausted Harold MacMillan’s resignation as PM. As the scandal span out to reveal sex parties in country homes, the country couldn’t get enough of the discovery that large numbers of the upper classes enjoyed nothing more than swinging, orgies and indiscriminate sex laced with sado-masochism. 

Scandal reconstructs the build-up to and eventual explosion of controversy around this affair, focusing on Keeler (Joanne Whalley) and Stephen Ward (John Hurt), the society osteopath and friend to the rich and famous who had worked out that if he found and coached attractive young girls, Henry Higgins-style, into engaging and fun companions, he could swiftly move up the social ladder by giving the rich and powerful people they could sleep with. When the Profumo affair blew up, it was Ward who was left holding the parcel: abandoned by his rich and powerful friends, Ward was placed on trial as a pimp, vilified in court and in the press, and eventually committed suicide the night before the court case finished (which convicted him in absentia of living off immoral earnings).

It’s this miscarriage of justice that Scandal zeroes in on – and the film does a good job of showing that Ward basically didn’t really do anything that wrong. He didn’t mistreat the girls, he thought he was helping them improve their lives and he didn’t attempt to blackmail his friends. His own sex drive seems curiously disconnected (he was clearly more of voyeur) and if anything, John Hurt (excellent as always) plays him as a slightly sad social-climber. A sort of Horace Slughorn of sex, far more excited by his bulging address book, access to the exclusive clubs of London and calling lords of the land by their matey nicknames, than by all the nooky.

Scandal however is a rather unemotional, unengaging and distant film. It’s hard to get too wrapped up in, as it too often goes for documentary checklist rather than real character engagement. On top of that, it’s often rather unclear – it’s tricky to tell the exact timelines, it’s hard to see often how some events relate to others, it’s unclear in particular how Christine Keeler’s relationship with jazz promoter and drug dealer Johnny Edgecombe led to exposure. It’s a film that’s both in love with telling the facts and so blinded by them that it doesn’t turn them into an engaging story.

But then perhaps part of this is because looking back today, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about with the Profumo affair. After generations where government ministers have been accused of everything from toe-sucking to performing a sex act on a dead pig, it’s hard not to look at the Granddaddy of all government sex scandals and not think it rather quaint. Today it would barely merit more than few news cycles: and Profumo would certainly have been back in the cabinet within two years. Even the spy angle (was Profumo leaking secrets to Keeler, who in turn leaked them to Ivanov?) was widely (and almost immediately) discredited at the time. 

Not that the seismic impact really comes across anyway in the film. This is partly because the film focuses on Ward and Keeler in particular. For the two of them, there wasn’t much at stake – until their lives were destroyed. In fact, for most of these people at the various dodgy parties – other than embarrassing tittle-tattle – there wasn’t much at stake. A film that gave more space to Profumo – and really made-clear what he was running the risk of losing here, particularly after he lied to Parliament – might have made it clearer the dangers that all involved were inadvertently running.

But that would have been to dent the film’s purpose of showing Ward and Keeler as essentially innocents abroad. Joanne Whalley has a particularly difficult job as a Keeler so thoughtless, short-sighted and self-obsessed, she verges on the dim. Whalley makes her bright, engaging and fun-loving, but never with a whiff of sense. By the time Keeler is blurting out totally unconnected Profumo facts when speaking to the police about her relationship with Edgecombe, you can tell she doesn’t have a chance.

The film’s real strength though is John Hurt’s masterful performance as Stephen Ward. Hurt’s pock-marked face and ruddy complexion (going through a difficult divorce he allegedly spent most of the filming struggling with alcoholism) and slightly sweaty desperation are perfect for the role. A natural victim as an actor, he makes Ward always slightly desperate, always trying too hard, always the grammar-school boy pushing his nose up against society’s window. He’s a super creepy Henry Higgins grooming girls for a “better life” (his genuine belief!) and getting himself an entrée into posh society at the same time.  

Ward, the film argues, didn’t feel he was ever doing anything wrong – and he realises far too late that society, his posh friends and the government don’t agree. “It’ll blow over” he reassures Ivanov: totally wrong. Ward basically was a hedonist who wanted people to have a good time – and was thrilled to be invited to the party. When the shit hit the fan, he was dumped with the blame. It’s an angry note that the film – with its obsession with covering so much ground – fumbles slightly: it wants to be a searing indictment of the hypocrisy of the upper classes, but it fudges the emotional connection so much that you can’t feel it as much as you should.

Instead Scandal just sort of simmers rather than boils. It doesn’t communicate what a sea change this was in how Britain viewed its politicians and upper classes – from hereon they were always seen as men with feet of clay – and it doesn’t get the audience feeling as angry or engaged with things as you might expect. It has a lot of sex in it but (perhaps deliberately) it’s not sexy – the orgy scenes would make a great mood killer – and it seems to miss the hedonistic tone that dominated the class at the time. 

There is some decent directing – a scene of Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler preparing for a night on the town is particularly well done – and some strong acting, not least from Ian McKellen is a slimy Profumo (rumour has it a recently de-closted McKellen was keen on the role as it was the most hetrosexual role he could imagine playing!). But it never quite clicks together into something really emotionally engaging. And it isn’t quite as clear and easy to follow as you need. Structuring the story as a kind of love story between virtually the only people in the story who don’t have sex together is interesting – and Hurt and Whalley are good – but it’s just not quite a good enough film for what it wants to do.

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.