Twenty-five minutes in to the film, I suddenly thought, “Wait, people said it takes this long to get used to the 48fpm and the 3D. I’ve only just noticed it – and it’s fantastic!” Perhaps there’s something wrong with my eyesight, but for me at Wellington’s Embassy at least, the colours glowed, the sparkling detail shone, and the screen showed a sumptuous feast of Middle-earth from the first frame. I was immersed in the reality from the first frame.
We were impressed by the clever way the introduction, which frames the story, wove this film neatly into the start of FOTR. You couldn’t help but smile fondly at Ian Holm’s cameo with Elijah Wood.
After a glance at the Bagginses in the Shire, we got our first glimpse of the dwarf kingdom, which was filled with details I think Tolkien would have loved. There was the lovely rhythm of Old English in lines such as (near as I can recall) “The dragon laid waste/ Death he dealt” – a cadence that Tolkien himself fell into readily enough. A nice touch was the rhythm of the countless hammers on the anvils as we first see the smithies of Erebor – for a second I’m sure I heard the unmistakable, frenetic anvil rhythm of Wagner’s Rheingold. I’ll have to see it again to check if I was imagining things.
Talking of sound and music, the sound could well win another Oscar for sound editing. The sound was as deeply 3D as the picture, and used to striking effect during the Riddles in the Dark scene. Just as you can imagine that, lost in the dark, one’s ears would magnify everything and prick the emotions unbearably.
The music disappointed me though. The cues for what we should feel were too obvious, and I wanted more new themes. It made sense to have an established sound-world for each place or character, but I kind of sighed internally when the angelic choir struck up again to signify Rivendell, or the music moved so obviously towards a restatement of the Ring theme or the Shire theme. It all felt a bit recycled, and unless some new themes or orchestration are introduced, I’m going to be heartily sick of them by the end of the third movie.
What’s with the rampant contrabass trombones in every film score these days, too? Lately they’ve become de riguer for every action scene. Great instrument, but you can have too much of a good thing.
Some critics have complained of the film’s slow introduction, but the action is worth the wait – to me the film felt very well paced indeed. You get a glimpse of Smaug right near the beginning – and like James Cameron’s Alien, a glimpse, combined with superb sound effects, works tremendously on the imagination.
The acting was as I expected it to be: Superb. I’m speaking as a person who would be enthralled by watching Sir Ian McKellen or Martin Freeman reading a laundry list. But Richard Armitage I haven’t seen before, but he was equally compelling. The writers’ choice was to keep the film tightly focused on their story arcs. Their evolving relationship is at the heart of the film, and if things are sacrificed, they are in favour of this. You will find a chapter of Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales very illuminating in this respect – Tolkien described the initial distrust between Gandalf, Thorin and Bilbo absolutely like this. The relationship between these three is the crucial dramatic arc of this story.
Some scenes are framed slightly differently than in the book: Bilbo leaving Bag End for instance, or his encounter with the trolls. They keep much of the dialogue we know and love, but the changes reinforce the central drama of Bilbo, who chooses to follow his Tookish side rather than being bullied into the quest by Gandalf. The troll scene was always a bit unbelievable when I read it – 13 dwarves taken unaware and popped into sacks? The film version solves that.
We get to see some of the dwarves in more detail than others. Balin, Fili and Kili stand out from the crowd a little in this film; over the course of three films no doubt we will see more of the others.
Radagast was a bit of a scene-stealer, and provided a necessary link between the Dwarves’ quest and the goings-on at Dol Guldur, with its hints of the larger story of the rise of Evil in Middle-earth. Sylvester McCoy had both charm and force as the dotty but spirited Brown Wizard.
You get to see a bit more of Saruman too. Gandalf is placating and mild before Saruman’s ruthless beaurocratic coldness. How much does he know under the surface? It’s an interesting scene as they fence with each other, Gandalf appearing to give way and offer no resistance – surely just a harmless old man. You get the sense of a game that has been played for a long time between these powers; Elrond and Galadriel are present too.
Riddles in the Dark was a tour de force by Freeman and Serkis. They acted the hell out of it, and it was fantastic. As others have said, the Oscars need to institute a new award, for best CGI character. In a film that relies so heavily on CGI, when it really counted, PJ fell back on good old theatre technique for scenes like this to give performances that were intimate, rehearsed and honed to perfection.
It was an excellent film and I can’t wait to go again.
We were lucky enough to go to the midnight screening at Wellington’s Embassy theatre. Fully half the audience were in costume, and the buzz of anticipation was incredible in this audience, which included many extras no doubt anxious to see whether they’d made the cut. People were entertained by having their photo taken with an orc in full Weta prosthetics, or just watching the parade of magnificent costumes. What a great crowd to see it with!