The Desolation of Smaug

The stakes are high for James Nesbitt and co in Peter Jackson's thrilling visit to Middle Earth

In the early years of the new millennium, blockbuster cinema and outstanding filmmaking coalesced with the arrival of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The New Zealand director’s take on JRR Tolkien’s towering, ‘unfilmable’ novel was a peerless and lovingly rendered fantasy epic.

Just as the source material had changed the literary landscape half a century before, Jackson’s cinematic masterpieces – The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King – brought Tolkien’s staggering vision to a new generation with triumphant critical and financial results.

11 years after Fellowship’s debut, Jackson delved once more into Tolkien’s canon with an adaptation of The Hobbit, the author’s original tale of Middle Earth. Smaller in size and scope, and lighter in tone, The Hobbit is nevertheless a beloved pillar of children’s literature.

The decision to split into three films a book significantly smaller than Tolkien’s later tome appeared, initially, to be a cynical one. To the chagrin of Tolkien aficionados everywhere, the news that the films would be padded with content from the great man’s appendices and, more horrifyingly, newly created storylines, was seen as an attempt to exploit Middle Earth’s enormous box office appeal.

Last winter’s An Unexpected Journey, the first entry in The Hobbit series, did little to dispel this theory. By any ordinary standard, the film was quite an accomplishment, full of awe-inspiring imagery and involving action. It was coolly received, however, in some quarters. Criticisms were levelled at its bloated length and the startling similarities to the opening film of the Rings troika.

Even the band of dwarves so central to the plot was labelled anonymous – a poor copy of the original Fellowship. Only Richard Armitage, Ken Stott and the typically earthy James Nesbitt made it through unscathed, distinguishing themselves from the otherwise bland coterie of fantasy stereotypes.

It is safe to say that film two, The Desolation of Smaug, overcomes any of these reservations, delivering, without doubt, the premier cinematic spectacle of the year.

Considering the place from whence it came (to borrow a Rings phrase), it is perhaps natural that these new adventures should be viewed through the prism of Jackson’s first opus. Yet, by the time the credits roll on The Desolation of Smaug, its breathtaking final hour has accomplished the not inconsiderable task of forging for this series a new identity.

Picking up where An Unexpected Journey ended, the film sees Armitage, Nesbitt and company scrambling to escape from evil pursuers. Fortunately the banter amongst the dwarves – to which Nesbitt is, predictably, central – remains strong, and in the solid Bilbo Baggins (the ever excellent Martin Freeman) and mysterious Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellan), the dwarves have perfect foils for their comedic elements. That said, this lacks the lightness of the previous instalment.

A darker edge is instantly discernible, and it is to the film’s benefit that any such flippancy is abandoned early on. In seeking to reclaim their homeland under the Lonely Mountain, the dwarves display impressive solidarity and strength of spirit. Specific characters may become lost in their number, but they remain a courageous gathering to which it is impossible not to warm. As the end draws near, the stirring emotion evident when they enter the halls of their lost heritage is genuinely affecting.

As Thorin Oakenshield, Armitage is much more than a cutout leading man. His interesting mix of nobility and barely disguised ambition is a pleasing twist on what could otherwise be a forgettable hero figure. Of the rest, Nesbitt’s salty Bofur is unfortunately left with little to add to the proceedings, his influence being reduced to make way for others in a film packing much into its considerable running time.

Plunged almost immediately into the psychotropic oppression of Mirkwood forest, the group encounters giant spiders and sinister elves (including Orlando Bloom’s Middle Earth veteran Legolas). A long way from the ethereal grace of the more familiar Rivendell, these elves are led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace), a wonderfully unstable dictator who sits on a throne of elk horns.

In escaping these captors, the Dwarves bob along a river in barrels, battling a host of pursuing Orcs, who in turn must fend off the attentions of the native elves. It is a bravura sequence, full of technical sorcery and jaw-dropping action, and one easily on par with anything in the flagship Rings trilogy.

As ever, New Zealand’s spectacular landscape provides the backdrop. Laketown, located on a vast frozen lake, is particularly impressive – the sets almost reek of fetid water and rotted fish. It is here that much of The Hobbit’s bespoke content comes into play, with Luke Evans’s Bard the Bowman at the centre of a greatly expanded storyline in which his fate – and even that of Nesbitt’s drunken jester – becomes obvious before the end.

The other major expansion involves Evangeline Lilly’s beautiful Tauriel. At the centre of a strangely unnecessary love triangle, Tauriel is a brilliantly drawn character, all elegant movement and deadly intent. It is to the writers’ credit that their own work should fit so seamlessly into Tolkien’s narrative.

Of the few things that grate in the film, the non-canonical material is not amongst them. As one of Tolkien’s most colourful creations, the eponymous Smaug is a heady combination of premium visual effects and stellar acting.

In spite of its awesome size and fiery centre, man of the moment Benedict Cumberbatch imbues the great dragon with a voice of molten gold. Precious and quick to anger, Smaug is a beastly primma donna quite unlike any other CG character yet seen.

Jackson’s decision to place his newer films in a wider context should please fans of The Lord of the Rings, with more than one nod going in that direction. Freeman’s descent into the obsessive compulsions that the One Ring lays upon him is subtle, and while he is horrified by the power in his possession the audience’s knowledge of his eventual fate is just as meaningful.

In tying together these disparate strands, Jackson has met the challenge of every mighty franchise. On the one hand, The Desolation of Smaug will thrill crowds on its own merit. Equally, it sits comfortably – and sensibly – with anything from its universe so far depicted. This should not be missed.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is now on general release now.