By Naomi Roper
And so we reach the end.
With The Battle of the Five Armies Peter Jackson brings his epic interpretation of Tolkein’s The Hobbit to a close as we say goodbye to Middle Earth one last time.
We start right where The Desolation of Smaug left off with a violently murderous Smaug breathing fiery vengeance upon the city of Lake Town & its poor unfortunate inhabitants. Who can possibly stand against him? Enter Luke Evans’ heroic Bard the Bowman. Smaug is frankly absolutely bloody terrifying (helped enormously by Benedict Cumberbatch’s storming vocals-pure concentrated rage). It’s an arresting sequence, if one that to be honest doesn’t really belong in this film. You can’t help but feel it was the natural ending for The Desolation of Smaug & shouldn’t have been carried over. But there’s no question that it packs a hell of a wallop.
After such a dramatic beginning the movie shifts focus to the Lonely Mountain as Bard & the downtrodden citizens of Lake Town converge on it to receive the compensation Thorin Oakenshield, King of the Dwarves (Richard Armitage) promised them. Only unfortunately Thorin isn’t in a particularly giving mood. Having reclaimed Erebor for the dwarves Thorin doesn’t feel inclined to part with any of his hard won gold. Going mad with “dragon sickness” he desperately wants to reclaim the Arkenstone -the heart of the mountain. As he & his fellow dwarves hole up in Erebor the forces of Lake Town & Thranduil-king of the elves converge on the mountain. And they’re not the only ones. For Azog and his band of murderous orcs are fast approaching…
In many ways The Battle of the Five Armies is a tricky film to review. It certainly doesn’t stand alone as a film to be judged on its own merits so your enjoyment of it will vastly depend on how much you enjoyed the other two films. For me it was a good, if curiously unemotional end to a fine trilogy anchored by some very strong performances & some delightfully surreal moments.
In truth the movie is not burdened with an over-abundance of plot. Essentially the 5 armies of the title converge on Erebor & have an almighty scrap (a stunning technical achievement and hugely impressive visually). Naturally things get very CGI heavy which is a blessing or a curse depending on your viewpoint. Personally I feel a little less CGI and a little more heart wouldn’t have gone amiss but you can’t quibble with the technical artistry on display.
The film is anchored by extremely strong performances. Most valuable player Richard Armitage (recently electrifying on stage in The Crucible) finally gets the chance to shine as Thorin Oakenshield & he more than seizes the opportunity. Whether he’s glowering in the dark, mad with “dragon sickness”, crippled with doubt and distrust and full of barely restrained violence or emerging majestically onto the field of battle Armitage is a fiercely commanding presence. He gets the best fight scene, the brutal, beautifully constructed climatic battle with Azog set on a precarious sheet of ice – the screen awash in icy hues of white and blue. It’s a ferocious performance.
Equally good is Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman. Bard is a reluctant sort of hero. He has no interest in glory or riches or fancy titles. He simply wants to keep his beloved children safe and to receive the compensation Thorin promised to the people of Lake Town so they can rebuild. Evans is very engaging and gives a very human grounded performance.
The very opposite of grounded is Lee Pace who gives a really quite outrageous performance as Thranduil the Elven King. Whether he’s surveying his troops on top of his really ridiculous battle Elk or dismissing Gandalf’s counsel with his very best “bitch please” face Thranduil is a diva with a capital D. The performance is as camp as Christmas and yet also the most fun in the movie. Pace is a joy to watch and you’ll want a Battle Elk of your very own.
Evangeline Lily brings a great deal of passion and heart to her role as Tauriel the elf. However, if you’ll forgive the soapbox I found it profoundly disappointing that Tauriel has no agency of her own in the film and literally spends her entire screen time being saved by highly attractive men. She’s alive because Thranduil permits it, she doesn’t appear to want to remain at Legolas’ side but does so because he demands it (and can we talk about how frighteningly ethereal and young Orlando Bloom is in this film? A spot of beauty work?) and while spoilers do not permit me to discuss her final battle scene it did make me want to tear my hair out. Tauriel was shown to be highly capable in Desolation so this path for her character is disappointing. It’s not exactly Eowyn and the Witchking is it? I find it so dismaying that we’re over a decade on from Return of the King and yet I feel we’ve gone backwards. Iconic moments like “I am no man” matter. It’s so important for young girls to be able to look at the screen and see themselves represented in a way that shows there is more to life than finding a handsome prince to protect you. It’s why Buffy the Vampire Slayer was so important to me when I was growing up and it’s why Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in The Hunger Games is so vital now. Tauriel unfortunately really rather lets the side down. Thankfully Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel more than makes up for it in her very brief screentime – beautiful, regal and completely bad-ass.
Elsewhere Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage give entertaining comic performances as, respectively, the Mayor of Laketown and his lackey Alfrid. Gage in particular is a delight giving a committed performance as the utter craven and cowardly Alfrid.
You’ve probably noticed I’ve discussed half the cast and haven’t mentioned Martin Freeman as Bilbo yet. There is a reason for that. Because of the nature of the story focusing as it does on Thorin, Bard and Thranduil as the leaders of 3 of the 5 armies of the title Freeman does rather become a cameo player is his own film. Martin Freeman is a criminally under-rated actor and he is absolutely superb in every scene he has here, he’s a master of understatement. But he gets very little to do and as such is very much sidelined. This is also true of Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey. Both are truly excellent but theirs aren’t the performances you walk away remembering.
Apart from the fancy CGI and the heavy weight emoting The Battle of the Five Armies has some delightfully surreal moments. No moment from any film I’ve seen this year is as extraordinary as a completely unrecognisable Billy Connolly (Dain) charging on screen astride a battle warthog and bellowing and swearing at the Orc army. It’s a completely and totally bonkers moment that had the audience I saw it with in hysterics. I can’t decide whether it was horribly misjudged or a moment of sheer genius. I’m going with both.
Equally crackers is Legolas’ final battle scene which is brilliantly choreographed and exceptionally silly. That Jackson can even begin to get away with it is thanks to Bloom’s effortless charm in the role.
The end of the film links in beautifully to The Fellowship of the Ring bringing closure to Master Baggin’s story. It left me rather unmoved (and I’m physically incapable of watching The Fellowship of the Ring without dissolving into tears at least twice (damn you Sean Bean!)) but there’s no denying that Peter Jackson is a truly gifted director and The Battle of the Five Armies is a triumphant and fitting end to The Hobbit trilogy. So farewell Bilbo Baggins and indeed Middle Earth. It’s been a joy to share your journey with you…