It’s at an end. Peter Jackson has left Middle-Earth behind. For real this time. Probably. THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES gives the lengthiest chapter in Jackson’s career so far an appropriately grand ending, but wisely he doesn’t try and out-scale THE RETURN OF THE KING, rather he just makes the type of spectacle we are witnessing a little bit different.
Bilbo and the dwarven company of Thorin Oakenshield’s long journey has reached its zenith. After turfing a furious dragon out of their mountain kingdom, the diminutive collective baton down the hatches and prepare for the kind of fallout that can only result from a massive power vacuum left by the sudden absence of the furnace with wings. Hosts of orcs, men and elves quickly crowd their doorstep to claim what was promised, what was stolen, or just a beardy head or two. As Thorin’s (Richard Armitage) sanity slides and he pushes his companions away in a paranoid frenzy, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) try and broker an uneasy peace between the squabbling factions in time to stand together against the foul forces thrall to a not-quite-corporeal Dark Lord.
As impressive and multi-leveled (both geographically and in terms of character) as the actual drawn-out conflict of the title is – and the 45-minute clash is as bombastic as one has come to expect from Jackson – my favourite action beats are the briefer, smaller-scaled ones. The sequence of Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) reducing Laketown to a burning shell is kept as a relatively brief, though still emotionally-charged, action appetiser. A few duels between nemeses that have long been teased also get satisfying payoffs, and the very best fight scene in the whole film comes from a wonderfully unexpected source, which I won’t spoil beyond saying that we finally get to see the White Council in action.
The cast all turn in their best work of the trilogy. Freeman and McKellen are dependable stalwarts as ever, Luke Evans and Richard Armitage bring the dramatic meat of the story to life, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish and Aiden Turner stand out amongst the company of dwarves and even Billy Connolly makes a memorable, if brief appearance at the end riding a humungous pig. Orlando Bloom sells the most ridiculous of all Legolas hero moments and is stoically cool throughout, even if he does have to say with a straight face one of the stupidest lines Jackson’s writing team have ever committed to screen: “These bats are bred for one purpose [dramatic pause] for war!”. Evangeline Lilly and Lee Pace continue their strong work from THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG in establishing that elves aren’t all the goody-two-shoes of the likes of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) – who both make striking return appearances – and are in fact just as flawed as the rest of us.
Armitage’s performance is strong enough to sell Thorin’s corrupted soul without the exaggerated stylistic touches Jackson insists on using in a key scene (altering the pitch and speed of his words doesn’t really add to the character’s pathos, it just makes it comical, even if it is sort-of thematically evocative) and far better for dramatic effect is a much more straightforward later scene of Thorin and his trusted lieutenant Dwalin (Graham McTavish) just talking how old friends really talk to each other when one of them has made a massive blunder.
I won’t say the pacing, the buildup to all-out war is as well done as it was for the Battle of Helm’s Deep in THE TWO TOWERS (in fact, the uneven pacing is probably the weakest aspect of this film), but it does demonstrate that Jackson is able to show the consequences of devastation in addition to putting us in the middle of it. Warfare has never been glamorised in his Middle-Earth films, but he really commits to showing the cost of it all here, notably when we are allowed a moment of quiet contemplation following Laketown’s fiery devastation.
Speaking of Laketown, the Master of that particular watery nowhere (Stephen Fry), despicable as he is shown to be (a timely OLIVER! reference as he attempts to save his treasure hoard at the expense of human life further establishes this), his creeping henchman Alfrid (Ryan Gage) has to double-up his pantomime villain performance to make up for the lack of his superior’s presence for much of the film. Alfrid’s (further) downturn results in an amusing MONTY PYTHON reference, but it does make you wonder why Bard doesn’t just take his head clean off, I mean, I know he’s meant to be a good guy, but no-one is that good.
I didn’t particularly appreciate the short shrift some characters received in The Hobbit’s final instalment. Blink and you’ll miss every dwarf who isn’t Thorin, Balin, Dwalin, Kili and Fili, and the same disappointingly goes for Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), but I guess there’s always the final Extended Edition to fix this, and maybe it’ll finally give Bombur (Stephen Hunter) a line too.
Weta Workshop once again do sterling work differentiating the combatants, a particular feat as they are essentially doing five times the work this time round. The incredibly talented legion of designers relish imagining and crafting the plethora of armour, weaponry and fighting styles so you are never in any doubt about who just sliced something off whom. The distinctive traits and characters of of the squabbling races come through seemlessly – dwarves fight in rigid formation like a bearded mountain, elf battalions move as fluidly and organically as a flock of birds, the men do what they can and improvise by charging in with fishhooks and pitchforks, and the orcs swarm and snarl with the best of them. Jackson’s ever-present love for the grotesque is on show here too, particularly with the appearance of a troll which possesses none of its original limbs, but a nasty-looking spiky replacement for each. He must have had a mischievous glint in his eye too when he came up with just how Thranduil (Lee Pace) could use his battle elk to take out multiple enemies.
Jackson looks like he had so much fun making this one, and if AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY was the Kiwi returning a little shakily, perhaps slightly reluctantly to familiar ground, and Desolation of Smaug was him striding purposefully forward and fully regaining his confidence, then The Battle of Five Armies is him pirouetting with joy that he decided to come back to Middle-Earth, and fully committing to making the most of what he assures us is his final visit to Tolkien’s magical land. The final leg of Bilbo’s journey is satisfying and contains some of the highest points of the prequel series, but it never quite manages to compete with the sheer memorability of the best moments of THE LORD OF THE RINGS as its predecessor occasionally managed to do. So it’s a worthy end, but not a spectacular one, but saying that I enjoyed it immensely. Bring on the 20+ hour Middle-Earth marathon. SSP