[SPOILERS] The Desolation of Smaug, closer look at Richard Armitage’s performance [second impressions]

Gotta love the Midwest. Medium-sized theater packed for 3D HFR matinee, lots of excited chatting about the film beforehand, the same stunned silence — then clapping — at the end. Then someone said, out loud, “aw, mom, do I gotta wait a whole ‘nother year?” and everyone laughed. People grinning as they leave the theater. This is the kind of movie watching experience I like to have.

In case you think this was an isolated incident, WesternFan reports: “All three of my children voted that the WORST ending to a movie they had EVER EVER seen. [One child’s] whining echoing “WHAT?!?” when I told her the third movie doesn’t hit till next Christmas had the three rows in front of us laughing.”


So — again, I would say that I didn’t find a slow moment in this film — but really, the second viewing for me was all about watching Thorin.

It’s been interesting to me since seeing AUJ for the first time: how fully Richard Armitage has edited a lot of his rich facial language. A lot of that had to do with prosthetics, obviously, but he was also obviously working on certain things that were tics. I don’t know if I’ve seen Thorin lick his lips or bite his tongue even fleetingly, for instance. (He may do, but it’s not the regular thing we saw in Armitage’s earlier work.) But I was wondering whether he was paring down Thorin’s facial movements — and if so, how I felt about it. Armitage was quoted as saying that for Thorin it’s all in the eyes, so there are appears to be a deliberate decision behind some of this.

Leaving the theater I thought of eight things I wanted to mention / discuss. See if I can remember the thoughts I had.

Opening scene — Gandalf and Thorin in the tavern in Bree

Leading up to the exchange, the point at which the two thugs are looking greedily at Thorin — interesting tension in Thorin’s face between awareness, anxiety, preparation to respond, and then resolution — of course, all cut off as Gandalf suddenly whisks into place.

In the scene itself, the obvious comparisons we should make are to Thorin’s body language and facial exchanges in the Bag End scene in AUJ, but also echoes of the dwarf / wizard status games question, although they are eye to eye in this scene so the height differential doesn’t get exploited here in the same way. Many of the same moves on Thorin’s part — the earnest sticking out of the face, the urgent hush of his words, when he affirms that his father is still alive. The jaw movements recall the corporeal manifestation of Thorin’s status problems as outlined in AUJ. Also, movingly, exactly the same movement or response in the eyes, parallel to the moment in AUJ when he sees the key to Erebor for the first time, when Gandalf urges him to unite the dwarves and liberate his homeland.

Beorn’s house

I think the main thing here was Thorin’s response, in his eyes — shock, pain? — when Beorn notes they are not going to make it to Erebor on time. Also Thorin’s physical isolation and the way some of the dwarves are looking at him, especially Fili. Something else is niggling at me.

Thorin + Thranduil

I said before that I felt that the barrage with which Thorin hits Thranduil in this scene has something do with shame. I think the reason that that is hidden on first view is that Thorin’s status games with other characters involve none of the facially revealed introspection that Armitage uses in some of his other characters (John Porter, for instance). We don’t immediately read shame because Thorin never has that look of guilt on his face. Where I see it, on second viewing — twice, very briefly — a look mixed of severe grief and deep memory — that we first see just before Thorin wheels to face Thranduil, and then, again, at the end of his dwarvish speech, just before Thranduil tell hims not to wish dragon fire on the elves.

This time around I noted some more Macbeth in this scene — the cocky king but also the crazy king. I admit that I was mostly reading that particular mood of pride (when Thorin starts proclaiming, back to Thranduil, that he will not trust him, when he gets that scoffing look on his face his head sort of sways to the right) as arrogance but inevitably, after having seen the end of the movie twice, I think of Balin’s remarks about Thorin’s sickness and wonder if that’s supposed to be manifesting there. Anyway, it’s interesting because it’s something Armitage’s characters hardly ever do — this kind of dismissive almost haranging mode underwritten a bit by the hopelessness of exile. Armitage’s execution of pride as a human mode is not undergirded by severe confidence; it almost always feels a bit fragile, as if you can see the insecurities beneath it. Here that sort of superficial arrogance comes much more to the fore. Interesting, too, the flatness of his cheeks at that moment, reminiscence of the flat affect microexpressions used for Guy of Gisborne. Guy has moments that hint in this direction but he never makes it that far, I suppose because Guy is always subordinated to someone else. Here Thorin’s in the “nothing left to lose” position.

At the elves’ floodgates

With all the water pouring over them, the possibility that any of these guys had the presence of mind to act at all impresses the heck out of me.

Here, I want to note the look on Thorin’s face when he realize that Kili’s in danger. There’s a split second of utter horror and then he pulls back. This seems to be a strong gestural tendency for Thorin — a possible difference to early characterizations, in which you see two to three distinct emotions develop and move their way across Armitage’s face. In contrast, Thorin lets out a great deal of everything in the first fraction of a second, and then pulls back, almost as if he doesn’t think he’s supposed to have been so revealing, or sometimes, as if he’s awaiting a reaction. It’s a really fascinating difference and one that makes Thorin’s face different from almost all of Armitage’s other characters.

To compare — the near-detachment with which Thorin keeps Kili from joining the last phase of the quest and responds to Fili’s decision to stay with his brother.

Also, the gloating look as the dwarves float out of reach of the orcs and Legolas.

The dwarvish windlass

This is where we finally get that introspective look that Armitage isn’t associating with Thorin’s shame — when the weight of his memories of the destruction of Erebor all lands on him at once, when he sees the windlass.

[Funny comment on the windlass found when I was googling to figure out what the heck that thing was called.]

The speech on the steps in Laketown

This was the scene that started my thoughts on the path to Shakespeare. I like how Armitage plays this, with Thorin indistinguishable among the other dwarves until Dwalin exposes him, and the resolute raising of the head and stepping forward to assume his proper position. You see the typically Shakespearean exhortative gesture here, as Thorin urges the Laketowners to take his side, if I remember correctly with his right hand. (He makes this same gesture in the Bag End scene of AUJ.) Also the fully open armed stance — something Porter did once and that didn’t remind me of Shakespeare there, so I’m not sure what’s going on with that. The backward stance with the look over the shoulder. I can very much see what Armitage has said here about the RSC and physical preparations — particularly the very striking physical postures that Thorin strikes regularly as of this point in the film. This is also significant in the subsequent scene though I don’t want to discuss it there until I can see it a few more times.

I’ve often wondered what Shakespeare precisely meant to Armitage (in more specific terms than he’s talked about it). I know that it was a Shakespeare comedy that made him want to be a stage actor; obviously he’s been in Shakespeare productions and worked at the RSC and did education programs for children with the RSC; and he’s made various remarks over the years about Shakespeare characters such as Macbeth and Richard III. At the same time, there are the frequent references to modernist and postmodernist theater, and also his statement that he didn’t like seeing hatchetfaced audiences. What two viewings of this film suggest are a sort of lingering Shakespearean vibe in the “hail fellow well met” mode — especially physically, as when, at the beginning of the attempt to find the door at Erebor, we see him with his leg propped up on a rock.

I wondered what it cost him to give up that dream and move to the television career pursuits that got him more regular work and made his career. And I wonder how much of what is going on in some scenes of this film relates to an attempt to recapture that.

This moment is way more majestic that I had realized from the trailer


The assault on Erebor

Shakespearean delivery here or there, it’s definitely the case that once the dwarves are standing before the secret door, it’s all, all, all in Thorin’s eyes. The look of delight as he summits to the door, the look of triumph as he tells the dwarves that others will rue the day they laughed at the quest, the confusion over the map, the increasing desperation, the death in his eyes when it doesn’t work — and many more. (I should have taken my notebook to the theater; my memory was flagging by this point.) The look on his face when they finally open the door and he steps inside Erebor, as he delivers the “I remember these halls” line. The darkness in his eyes as he tells Bilbo that finding the Arkenstone is why he’s alone — and then the contrast of Thorin’s eyes against the darkness inside of Erebor as he looks down into the hall. The look on his face when he enters the main area and sees all the treasure piled up.

In this twenty minutes or so of the film are all the emotions set free that Armitage has been restraining all this time and limiting to the corners of Thorin’s eyes.

Question — the really chaotic mood shifting in Thorin’s statements — especially where it looks like he is suddenly turning on Bilbo. Too sudden an eruption of madness here? But wow, the tension of Thorin pushing Bilbo along on the end of that sword.

And the delivery of the “we shall all burn together” line. This was much more restrained than I had expected — but also much more bloodthirsty, deathwish-ish, self-destructive. Was there enough madness to it, in the end, though? I like how the delivery of that sequence started a great deal — “I will not die this way, cowering in fear, gasping for breath.” There was a trim, quiet, determination to that part of the moment that pushed the energy of the scene in an effective way toward the final line about ending in fire. And there was a disturbing tone of relish to that final line — but without the big emotional push behind it that I had expected. Need to see again several times. Question: does the slight underlying implication that Thorin is going to enjoy this destruction enhance or interfere with the madness element of the portrayal? Also, does that interfere with the dire mood of the closing sequences?

The final sequences between Thorin and Smaug

Mostly, here, I’m referring to what I said above about the way that Armitage pushes Thorin’s most extreme facial expressions in these scenes to the very front of every reaction and then pulls back. This is most noticeable at the point at which he’s baiting Smaug to breathe fire at them and restart the dwarf forges.

And then, the speech where Thorin is reiterating his status as King under the Mountain as Smaug approaches — and then pulls back the stone mold of the golden statue of Thror (?) to make it fall on Smaug. Again, excellent, convincing physical posture, very restrained delivery. Although the “we will have our revenge” is nicely free of glee, it also is somewhat cleansed of that touch of madness that we saw at the end of the scene in the western guardroom.

I love the dancing crouch as Thorin moves across all of these scenes. I miss that in a lot of Thorin’s walk — so stumpy at times — here Armitage the dancer is back and I like it even as I realize it’s a bit of a fall out of character.

And the voice

It was striking to me that Armitage’s voice often appeared in its more natural baritone in this movie. I assume this is because he did more ADR for this film than for the last one, with all these action scenes? And so he didn’t have his voice trained down into the lower register? In any case, I prefer his natural voice to Thorin’s growl, but I’m wondering whether anyone else noticed htis.

Questions to explore

  • Responses to apparent editing of facial responses that Armitage has done for Thorin?
  • Thorin and shame?
  • Responses to the kind of expansive upper body gestures Armitage is using toward the end of the film to indicate the kingly mien?
  • Reaction to the occasionally self-consciously theatrical quality of some of the later scenes?
  • How do you feel about the delivery of the “burn together” line?
  • Reaction to Armitage’s use of his eyes?
  • And the voice?

~ by Servetus on December 15, 2013.

2 Responses to “[SPOILERS] The Desolation of Smaug, closer look at Richard Armitage’s performance [second impressions]”

  1. Got back from seeing the movie with the boys a couple hours ago. The best couple hours I have had in awhile, it took me away from from it all.

    THE VOICE: How I love the voice. I notice right away that we had Richards voice and not the Thorin growl, but that was just fine by me. Very few voices have the affect that Richards has on me.

    I see the it’s lonely at the top (the leader) feel at times to Thorin. He had the weight of the the rest of there feats on his shoulders.

    I really enjoyed the barrel and the fish parts, big smile on my face. Also a big smile with the opening and there was Richard on the big screen.


  2. I just saw DOS tonight with my 8 year old son and LOVED it, of course. RA was amazing, as were all the other actors. I also went to a small-town theater where we all chatted beforehand and cheered together when it started. My one complaint… the freaking cliff-hanger. I had a feeling it was coming, but dang it Peter Jackson- why must you toy with us!?!


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