Tag: Martin Freeman

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

Grief and loss are the beating heart of this tender and heartfelt Marvel film, mixed with standard action tropes

Director: Ryan Coogler

Cast: Letitia Wright (Shuri), Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Angela Bassett (Queen Ramonda), Tenich Huerta Mejía (Namor), Dominique Thorne (Riri Williams), Winston Duke (M’Baku), Martin Freeman (Everett K Ross), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Valentina Allegra de Fontaine), Florence Kasumba (Ayo), Michaela Coel (Aneka)

There is one thing you can never imagine – and never want to – having to plan for in your franchise. The tragic loss of your lynchpin. For Black Panther that man was Chadwick Boseman, and his heart-breaking early passing hangs over the film like a shroud.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is two films in one. One is a standard Marvel adventure film, with gags, set pieces and careful groundwork laid for future entries. The other is a heartfelt eulogy, a processing of the raw shock the people making the film – and many watching it – felt at the loss of this fine actor. In universe, T’Challa (Boseman) has passed away. His sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) blames herself for failing to save his life and his mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) has become protective and unrelenting in her judgements.

With its monopoly on vibranium, Wakanda is now the most powerful nation on Earth. Other powers want a piece of that apple – and the US are plumping the deaths of the oceans for vibranium. But their search intrudes on a secret underwater civilisation led by wing-footed, super-strength Namor (Huerta Mejía). Namor threatens to unleash destruction unless Wakanda deliver him the scientist who created the US’s vibranium detector – who turns out to be a college student genius with Tony Stark vibes, Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne). When Shuri refuses to hand her over, Namor states he is coming for the surface – and will destroy Wakanda, a country he cannot trust.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is bookended by two heart-breakingly genuine moments of emotion. The death of T’Challa (off screen) and his funeral – a grief stricken, beautifully filmed funeral procession – carries a great deal of genuine rawness. A final montage of shots of Boseman, presented as the memories of Shuri finally coming to terms with her brother’s death is moving. The strongest parts of the film are these human moments. Wright has been open at her shock and pain at Boseman’s death and this translates beautifully in her affecting performance.

These adjustments to the script are the strongest parts of the film. Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett provide subtle, delicate work as two people affected by grief in very different ways, but both now more reckless, protective and retributive than before. The responses, guilt and pain of several characters carry real force and leave the deepest mark on the audience. It also builds a subtle “passing the torch” narrative, as Wakanda fears they have seen the last of their “Black Panther” who protected their nation through history.

Away from this, the film settles into being a more traditional Marvel franchise extender. Rightly much time has been given to the real-life tragedy, but this means much of the remainder of the plot feels rushed. Our new antagonists are hurriedly introduced – so much so that leader Namor (well played by Tenich Huerta Mejía with a charisma that covers an under-written part) introduces his people’s entire culture in an awkward info dump an hour into the film. Not a single other character of his merman race gets so much as a name (as I can remember) let alone a personality.

Despite being a slightly silly concept of an Atlantan (but definitely not Atlantis because that’s already been claimed by another franchise) underwater city with water pressure having given its inhabitants super-human strength, it is another strong commitment to diversity. These people descend from the Mayan civilisation, meaning they share the same history of persecution by the West as the African nations Wakanda represents. It should make them natural allies, right?

Of course, it doesn’t as this is a film that pivots on the mistakes and miscalculations of political leaders and how these force them into war. The film makes its point about political rivalries early with Ramonda giving the French and US an almighty ticking off at (a surprisingly small) UN for their ruthless attempt to obtain vibranium for themselves. However, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever dodges really delving into the most interesting implications of this.

Because there is a kernel of a really interesting, challenging idea here. In many ways Wakanda behaves with exactly the same domineering arrogance as the Western powers they criticise. The Wakandans take unilateral decisions for the world because they know best, treat other nations like recalcitrant children and horde the world’s most powerful resource for themselves. They are this close to a benign, dictatorial state. But the film isn’t interested in exploring this.

Bringing Wakanda and Talokan into rivalry on the grounds of Talokan seeing them as potential oppressors – as the most powerful among the surface nations they have always feared would crush them – would have been more interesting than the confused, convoluted “with us or against us” war we end up with. But I understand that a film, which prides itself on celebrating African culture, is not going to want to be seen as undermining any of that with something sharper.

Besides, this is all a set-up for the inevitable large scale action sequences. The finest is a haunting attack on a ship, where the Talokans use their siren voices to inspire the crew of an American black ops ship to drown themselves. There’s a decent car chase, some well-choreographed fights a pitched battles that thrill. It’s also notable that the loss of Boseman has led to this franchise being dominated by women of colour, all of whom deal with the sort of dilemmas and consequences that are normally the preserve of male (and white) comic-book heroes.

But the film’s heart is in the personal moments – and more interesting when looking at Shuri’s protective affection for Dominique Thorne’s plucky (sometimes overly so) inventor. It’s also interesting that this is a film that flirts more than I was expecting with its leads choosing anger and vengeance, over forgiveness and conciliation. Shuri and Ramonda lash out, with dangerous consequences, and express minimal regret. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever deserves points for being willing to tackle the negative implications of grief.

That’s the strength of the film, just as a pain of Boseman’s death is the beating heart. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is overlong and skips more challenging ideas, but it is also shot through with genuine grief. It’s not perfect, but it’s real, well-meaning and (for all its silliness and bombast in places) has a heart firmly in the right place. When a Black Panther rises in the final act, you will feel the film has earned it.

Nightwatching (2007)

Martin Freeman is the great artist Rembrandt van Rijn in this bizarre part drama part art lecture

Director: Peter Greenaway

Cast: Martin Freeman (Rembrandt), Eva Birthistle (Saskia van uylenburg), Jodhi May (Geertje Dircx), Emily Holmes (Hendrickje Stoffels), Toby Jones (Gerard Dou), Jonathan Holmes (Ferdinand Bol), Natalie Press (Marieka), Fiona O’Shaughnessy (Marita), Adrian Lukis (Frans Banning Cocq), Adam Kotz (Willem van Ruytenburch), Michael Culkin (Herman Wormskerck)

There are few artists who have such a distinctive visual style as Rembrandt van Rijn, perhaps the greatest of the Dutch masters. And there are few filmmakers with such distinctive style as Peter Greenaway. So this film is a sort of perfect marriage: Greenaway, the man who claims most of the world is visually illiterate and incapable of understanding the grace and depth of visual images (be they film or painting), taking the secret language of Rembrandt’s paintings.

Rembrandt (Martin Freeman) is hired to paint the Militia Company of District II. There is, however, a conspiracy in the company. Captain Hasselberg (Andrzek Seweryn), the original commissioner of the painting, is killed, seemingly in an accident, and replaced by Frans Banning Cocq (Adrian Lukis) and his lickspittle deputy Willem van Ruytenburch (Adam Kotz). Rembrandt believes the accident was in fact murder, removing Hasselberg so that the other members of the militia can profit in a financial deal with the British government (I won’t go into the details). Alongside this, the film also looks at the personal life of Rembrandt and his relationship with his wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle) and, after her death, his maids and mistresses, Geertje (Jodhi May) and Hendrickhe Stoffels (Emily Holmes).

Peter Greenaway is a visual stylist that’s for sure. The film takes place (apart from a few outdoor sequences in a forest) in a sort of representative set that looks a bit like a combination of a theatre stage and the bare framework of a Dutch interior painting. The camera frequently uses the width of the frame to squeeze in full-body shots of its characters, and the width and depth of the room, to try and replicate as much as possible the look and feel of these artworks. An early discussion of colour (and how to describe it) is illustrated by Geertje opening curtains in a representation of Rembrandt’s bedroom, with each colour (red-yellow-blue) in turn flooding the room from the open windows. The film looks distinctive and impressive, the costume design is meticulously researched, and the artful framing to ape the conventions and styles of Rembrandt’s painting is extremely well done.

What is less well done is the actual story itself, which is largely inert and frequently dull, and takes ages to outline what is, to be honest, a not particularly interesting conspiracy. It then intercuts this with scenes and moments from Rembrandt’s domestic life, but never ties the two of these together into something coherent. Too immersed in the details of the case to be the sort of dream-cum-fantasy of previous Greenaway films like The Draughtman’s Contract, and too preoccupied with the director’s narrative laxity to become a proper character study or piece of investigative fiction, the film rather uncomfortably falls between two stools becoming neither one thing or the other.

In fact, you almost sense Greenaway’s heart wasn’t really in it, that he really wanted to make Rembrandt J’Accuse, the companion art lecture illustrated with moments from this film, which really goes to town on his conspiracy theory. The details of the conspiracy (extremely hard to follow here) are at least easier to follow in Rembrandt J’Accuse, where they make a batty but enjoyable Dan Brownish argument – even if it is based on hands being drawn “without commitment” and elastic interpretations of visual language. To be honest, for all that Rembrandt J’Accuse is a bit odd – and that Peter Greenaway has an air of an ultra-pretentious Johnny Ball in his addresses to the camera – it actually makes a far more compelling piece of cinema than the narrative film it sits alongside.

Which is a shame because, as well as the design, there is a lot of good stuff here, not least in the performance of Martin Freeman. Cinema and TV’s eternal nice-guy gets to stretch himself fantastically as an electric, compelling genius overflowing with passion, ideas, intelligence and a chippy (frequently foul mouthed) confidence, mixed with an insatiable sex drive and nose-thumbing defiance. Freeman really gets the sense of a complex, earthy, fiery man who knows he is the smartest man in the room, and is extremely cocky with it – but also has a keen sense of justice and decency. It’s about a million miles away from Tim or Bilbo, and a big reminder that he is a hell of a performer.

Put Freeman in with the thrilling design and painterly flourishes of the film, and you’ve got sections that are really worth watching. Eva Birthistle is very good as his intelligent and articulate wife, as is Johdi May as his earthy, ill-tempered, sensual lover. Nathalie Press is heart-breaking as an illegitimate girl with a tragic life. Adrian Lukis is particularly smarmy and vile as the head of the militia. In fact, most of the performances are great.

It’s just the story is not. Moments of investigation are just building into something logical and coherent when they get interrupted by straight-to-camera addresses (very odd) from the members of the Rembrandt household explaining their personal situations. Just as we start to get invested in the loves of Rembrandt, we get thrown back into the dull conspiracy. When the two overlap, neither is really served. The story frankly isn’t interesting enough. That’s even before you have to wade through the inevitable Greenaway penchant for including as much full-frontal nudity as possible (Freeman and May in particular) and graphic sex in multiple positions and orifices. I mean, I get it, Rembrandt was a lusty guy but do we need to keep seeing it?

Nightwatching is a bizarre oddity – a vehicle for a commanding lead performance, with an actor cast way against type, that never decides whether it is some sort of biography of an artist or a secret-history-expose of a conspiracy forgotten by time. As always with conspiracy theories you suspect the obvious-but-dull is probably the truth – Rembrandt delivered a painting that was so radically different from the dull line-up paintings of this genre that it shook up the art world (not in a good way) and then he fell out of fashion, didn’t have a good understanding of money, and went bankrupt, rather than being destroyed by a shadowy Amsterdam cabal. Greenaway is so in love with his theories – and his usual lusty and psychological obsessions – that he ends up with something that is neither a drama or an art lecture but somewhere in the middle with the worst aspects of both.

Black Panther (2018)

Chadwick Boseman is the legendary Black Panther in Marvel’s solid comic book outing

Director: Ryan Coogler

Cast: Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa/Black Panther), Michael B. Jordan (N’Jadaka/Erik Kilmonger Stevens), Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Martin Freeman (Everett K Ross), Daniel Kaluuya (W’Kabi), Letitia Wright (Shuri), Winston Duke (M’Baku), Angela Bassett (Ramonda), Forest Whitaker (Zuri), Andy Serkis (Ulysses Klaue), John Kani (T’Chaka)

Marvel’s comic book world is now so stuffed with characters, worlds and dimensions that it is remarkable how many of its heroes are white and male. Black Panther does something completely different, giving us a set of African heroes and placing the common framework of a Marvel film within a very proud, and distinct, African heritage. So you can pretty much guarantee you ain’t seen a comic book film quite like this one.

After the death of his father (in Captain America: Civil War), T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becomes king of the secretive nation of Wakanda. Camouflaging itself as a poor and unadvanced nation in order to avoid interaction with the rest of the world, Wakanda has in fact for centuries been mining a remarkable metal, vibranium, that has helped the nation become hugely technologically advanced. Its king also bears the responsibility of being the “Black Panther”, ingesting a vibranium-infused herb to gain superhuman speed and strength. However, others have their eye on the throne, not least Erik “Kilmonger” Stevens (Michael B Jordan), who wants to turn Wakanda into a force that could protect the black people of the world from their historical oppressors and avenge centuries of slavery.

Black Panther never fails to be entertaining. The film is shot with a genuinely vibrant excitement, and I love the way it proudly embraces a comic book twist on African tribal heritage. In fact the film’s depiction of an African nation which is secretly the most powerful and advanced nation in the world is really quite an impressive political statement.

Ryan Coogler directs the film with flashy brilliance and comes up with a few ways of presenting what are (essentially) action sequences we’ve seen many times before in unique new ways. The stand-out is an early action scene in a Korean bar, filmed to appear as an immersive single take around a large set, the camera dipping and zooming from character to character. Coogler also brings a fair amount of visual wit to the fights while not losing the emotional and character depth the story is aiming for.

The film also has some fine performances, with Boseman dripping dignity, nobility and decency as T’Challa. Regular Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan gives a great contrast as bitter LA slums kid turned misguided would-be dictator Kilmonger. Danai Gurira stands out as proud general Okoye, torn between duty and personal loyalties. Hell even Forest Whitaker – clearly loving every moment of this OTT Marvel world – gets some weight and dignity out of his typical grandstanding style.

It’s another mark for the film that the world of Wakanda is so effectively gender neutral. Kings of Wakanda have a Praetorian Guard of female warriors, most of the leading voices on its council are women, and its technical genius is T’Challa’s sister Shuri (played by Letitia Wright in a charming, star-making performance). Sure it doesn’t feel like the role of Black Panther himself is up for grabs for anyone lacking a penis, but this is a world where women are equal, if not leading, partners in the action.

The film also addresses issues of post-colonial struggle, not least attitudes towards slavery and oppression handed out to Africa over centuries. Kilmonger’s fiendish plot is, in many ways, actually quite sympathetic – he wants to use Wakanda’s resources to protect those of African descent across the world. Jordan gets some good moments from his speeches laced with anger at the historical treatment of Afro-Caribbeans and, to be honest, it’s hard not to see his point. So hard in fact that the film has to drop hints that Kilmonger is a potential tyrant to stop him from seeing too reasonable. 

This is where the film’s plot starts to get slightly hazy. The character arc of T’Challa himself is pretty unclear. Traditionally in these films, the character must embrace his destiny. Problem is, a lot of this arc was covered in Captain America: Civil War. The writers are unable to give him a truly compelling replacement arc here. T’Challa drops a few references early on to not feeling ready – but basically swiftly embraces it. He never outlines a real alternative agenda to Kilmonger – there are characters in the film who argue “Wakanda doesn’t get involved in the world”, but he isn’t one of them, so there is no journey towards engagement with the outside world (on far more humanitarian terms than Kilmonger advocates). 

Frankly, Okoye is given a better character arc than T’Challa, beginning by advocating “we must serve the throne and respect our traditions even if we doubt them”, and learning later to follow her own conscience. T’Challa, in contrast, is no discernibly different at the end of the film to how he was at the beginning. 

T’Challa’s journey is basically getting something, losing it and then getting it back. Strip away Boseman’s performance and the character is basically pretty dull. He partly suffers, as does the rest of the film, from an overstuffed cast spreading the focus of the film far too thinly and leading to character arcs and interconnections feeling rushed. Kilmonger’s connection with T’Challa is forced – they only know each other for at best two days! – and there is a superfluity of villains. There’s not only decoy antagonist Klaue (and his gang) hanging about for a good chunk of the film, but also Daniel Kaluuya’s ill-defined best friend turned opponent, W’Kabi. Combining Kilmonger and W’Kabi would have helped no end, allowing two different, divergent agendas to develop and cause a relationship rift between two friends (Kaluuya is instead totally wasted in a nothing part, whose allegiances change depending on the demands of the plot). 

The good guys fare no better: Lupita Nyong’o is completely wasted as a love interest who feels stuffed into the movie because, y’know, these films gotta have one. She does nothing in the film that could not be easily done by another character, and nearly all of T’Challa’s emotional scenes – and personal motivation – are tied into his sister rather than this are-they-aren’t-they-a-couple. 

It’s all part of the traditionalism that underlies the film. Its structure is familiar and, like many Marvel origin films, the villain is a dark reflection of the hero with similar skills. The final battle is traditional and a little dull (and feels very similar to Avengers: Infinity War). The film avoids showing T’Challa torn between isolation and intervention – he in fact advocates both in the first 15 minutes – and doesn’t really make much of the prospect of a hero changing his mind or developing his views to embrace a wider world.

But it stands out because it is different. And it deserves no end of praise for making such a film so full of love and respect for its heritage. It walks a very difficult line between enjoying the bright exotic colours while not making the film patronising or overly “other-worldly”. How many other Hollywood films have, at best, two white characters (well played in both cases by Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis)? How many others would dare have the villain make a defiant, sizzling and emotionally inspirational speech about racial oppression and the hypocrisy of the West (though the film goes easy on America, with the speech taking place at the hilarious “Museum of Great Britain”. Where is this place – please get my tickets!).

That it slightly dodges and fudges the implication of these themes in its plotting and the conception of its hero – who is basically a dull character played by a charismatic actor – doesn’t reduce its pleasure at doing something different. I’m not sure it will stand up to repeated viewings – look past the setting and it does little new – but it’s a worthy entrance in a crowded universe.

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.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Martin Freeman does some good work in one of the rare moments where the film actually does a scene from the original book

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield), Benedict Cumberbatch (Smaug/Necromancer), Evangeline Lilly (Tauriel), Luke Evans (Bard), Lee Pace (Thranduil), Stephen Fry (Master of Lake Town), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), Ken Stott (Balin), Aidan Turner (Kili), James Nesbitt (Bofur)

The Hobbit films are an interesting opportunity to watch a team try to recapture lightening in a bottle. The Lord of the Rings films were not just a hit – they were a cultural phenomenon and changed the lives of nearly everyone involved in their production. For many of the actors it will be the first line of their obituary. The Hobbit followed the same shooting plan (two years in New Zealand, three films shot back to back) but somehow it didn’t manage to recapture the same magic. It still made squillions of dollars of course, but it’s not as loved as the first trilogy.

Of course the main problem with this is that the three films were (let’s be honest) a rather bloated inflation of a pretty short kids’ book into almost 8 hours of film making. The Desolation of Smaug is one of the biggest victims of this aggressive padding, as action sequences are crammed into to fill up the running time, at the cost of those moments of character development that made the first trilogy such a rewarding investment (and even made the first film an enjoyable experience for all its faults).

This film is all too aware that it is a “big film” and a guaranteed box-office smash, so gives us the action it thinks the punters want. Strangely it all feels more like a contractual obligation (“Peter we need more Tolkien. Three more to be exact. Do what you have to do!”) – what it probably needed (as did the whole trilogy) is a new pair of eyes on it, a fresh take, rather than Jackson having to go back to the well. To be fair Jackson acknowledged this, and tried to hire Guillarmo Del Toro to direct the trilogy (still credited as creative consultant).

The action sequences in this film bizarrely expand moments from the book with overblown padding – they are invariably the duller parts of the film. In that I’ll include the ludicrous semi-comic barrel escape of the dwarves (turned from floating down the river to a chase orgy of Dwarves-Elves-Orc conflict) and the overextended attempt to dispose of Smaug in the Lonely Mountain (again marked by unbelievable acts of athleticism and derring-do which seem so out of step I wonder if we are meant to take them seriously). Add in the huge amount of action given to Jackson-favourite Legolas and we have an awful lot of dull, over-choreographed action padding out a very slim story (no more than 6 chapters of the original book). What the makers seem to feel are the film’s tentpole highlights are in fact the sags in the fabric.

It’s a shame because the moments where the film does hew more closely to the story of the book are easily the best bits. The confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug is the film’s real highlight (helped by Benedict Cumberbatch’s superb vocal work as the self-satisfied fire breather), and (with some tweaks) it’s pretty much straight out of the book. The material in Laketown is faithful enough to the tone of the book, while adding depth to its story and the life of the town so that you invest in its fate (Luke Evans does a good job with surprisingly little as Bard). The inclusion of Beorn the shapeshifter I could have done without (one for the fans) and stupid as the spider attack is, at least it was in the original book. But the more the film starts to focus away from the dwarf plotline and onto elf politics or the terribly vague rise of Sauron story, the less it holds your attention.

Bless him, by 2013 Jackson was probably the only person on the planet excited by seeing Orlando Bloom in a film. The acrobatic elf has all the depth and interest of a cartoon character, while his now heavily over choreographed fight scenes seem to be taking place in a different universe from the first trilogy. In fact, all the scenes involving the elves are deathly dull and add very little to the plot, little more than limp attempts to tie in the LOTR story more fully into The Hobbit. This focus on Legolas also steals screen time from the dwarves, making many of them little more than extras in their own story.

The problem with ramming so much action and extra plot in to link the films into LOTR is that we don’t get the time with the characters we need in order to feel the necessary concern for them. The main problem here is that there are too many characters. There are three people who can claim to be the lead in this film (Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin). Behind them there are at least 10 prominent supporting characters and behind them at least another 12 small but important characters. That’s 25 characters the film needs to be juggle – in other words about 6.5 minutes each if you divide it equally. Jackson does a decent job with juggling these it has to be said – but it’s still way too many. I challenge any non-Tolkien fan to successfully identify pictures of all 13 dwarves without prompts.

It’s a shame as there are some very good performances in this. Martin Freeman continues to be perfect for the lead role, decent, brave and resourceful (but with small flashes of “ring addiction”); Ian McKellen of course just is Gandalf; controversial as her extended storyline is, I rather liked Evangeline Lilly’s performance; Ken Stott does a lot with limited screen time as Balin. Richard Armitage demonstrates his star charisma again as Thorin, a complex part he invests with a Shakespearean gravitas: in this film Thorin is at times kindly, stubborn, generous, selfish, patient, temperamental, a warm friend, a deeply suspicious comrade – Armitage holds all these threads together brilliantly. Honestly the guy is an absolute star.

Overall, I enjoyed Desolation much more than I remember doing in the cinema. Perhaps it helps that I’ve seen all three films, and understand more where this film is going. It’s still an overblown, overstuffed piece of work that doesn’t have the sense of soul that LOTR has. It mistakes high octane action for human interest and struggles to make all the characters in the film make an impression. A braver adaptation would have reduced the number of dwarves – but I can just imagine the riot from the book fans… What this film really is, of course, is 4-5 really good scenes, surrounded by padding to boost the running time – but those scenes (Smaug and Bilbo, Thorin confronting the people of Laketown, the few quiet talking bits) are very well done, and they just about make the film work. On repeated viewings you’ll find yourself drifting out to make a cuppa during the barrel chase. But you’ll certainly be in your seat when Bilbo first enters the Lonely Mountain’s treasure store. And its miles better than what was to come.