Seventeen years after Peter Jackson won the rights to film The Lord Of The Rings, he is finally taking leave of JRR Tolkien and Middle-earth with the conclusion of The Hobbit. The new film marks a magnificent,Wagnerian-style finale, full of sound and fury, and with an unexpected emotional kick. The Hobbit trilogy started in tentative fashion, picked up momentum and ends in a way that is likely to satisfy even the most die hard fans of one of the most popular franchises in movie history.
If you haven't seen the first two episodes, expect to be baffled. Jackson doesn't make any concessions at all to newcomers to The Hobbit. The Battle Of The Five Armies begins just where last year's The Desolation Of Smaug finished off. There isn't even a token attempt to recap on the plot or explain which elf is which. We're plunged straight into the action with the dragon laying waste to Lake-town, with only Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans in Errol Flynn mode) offering the townsfolk any chance of survival.
Generally in big budget fantasy epics, the filmmakers go to great lengths to establish character and set the plot rolling before they introduce the real spectacle. Here, Jackson, obviously feeling he has done the groundwork in the earlier episodes, starts letting off the fireworks right at the outset and doesn't let up. The film is shorter than its predecessors and is essentially one long series of battles.
At times, the storytelling is very dark and violent. There is one phantasmagoric scene involving Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) fighting off evil spirits that plays like something from some Satanic thriller by Dennis Wheatley.
Jackson doesn't skimp on the beheading, impaling and disembowelling either. The look of the film is grey and brooding. The cute, pastoral world from which Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) emerged at the beginning of the trilogy seems a very long way away indeed. There is very little comic relief here outside Billy Connolly's cameo as the fiery Glaswegian-sounding Dwarf, Dain Ironfoot, and Ryan Gage's role as the venal, cowardly Alfrid.
Almost all the action is set against the backdrop of the lonely mountain of Erebor. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his dwarves have taken control of the castle but Thorin's character is being corrupted by the gold. He forgets his honour and his promises to the people of Lake-town.
By the end of the film, several armies have converged on Erebor. Elves, dwarves and humans are all at loggerheads and seemingly unaware of the threat posed to them by the hordes of murderous Orcs about to converge on them.
A movie comprised almost entirely of battles could have become very tedious indeed. Jackson, though, is always able to give an intimacy to even the biggest, noisiest scenes. Howard Shore's music plays a crucial role in driving the action forward and in providing emotional shading. Freeman's role as the down to earth everyman Bilbo Baggins provides much needed contrast to the bombast that runs through The Battle Of The Five Armies.
As the different armies collide, the film risks becoming chaotic and confusing. There are some moments of mawkishness, especially at the finale. We get the sense that Jackson is struggling to drag himself away for the last time from a kingdom to which he has devoted so much of his working life and that he can't quite work out how to make a tidy exit. Nonetheless, for all its loose ends, The Battle Of The Five Armies is the strongest, boldest film in the Hobbit trilogy and provides just the send off that the series deserves.
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