The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies brings Peter Jackson’s filmic reimagining of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic tales of Middle-Earth to a close in epic fashion, and with the emotional weight of thirteen years of visual storytelling that will likely never be rivaled again.
Many scoffed when Jackson, not known for his restraint, announced that his production of The Hobbit, like Lord of the Rings before it, would be a trilogy. A quieter, more intimate book, The Hobbit did not seem to lend itself to the epic Jackson treatment that Tolkien’s trilogy did. And yet, despite moments of directorial self-indulgence and largesse, The Hobbit films remained an intimate affair—one packed with moments of emotional intimacy and widescreen grandiosity in equal amounts. The final film of The Hobbit trilogy contained more of the latter than the former, as the title indicated, but the softly throbbing heart of the movie—the relationships forged between Bilbo, Thorin and the rest of the Company—had a heft even the most epic battle scene could only hope strive to attain.
Picking up immediately where The Desolation of Smaug ended, The Battle of Five Armies is essentially a feature-length depiction of the brief and bloody conflict that occurs in the wake of the dwarves’ recapture of Erebor. And while the battle itself is the movie’s centerpiece, it is the relationships between the main cast—both before and after the battle—that comprise the movie’s heart.
The relationship between Thorin and Bilbo, which occasionally has ruler/subject undertones, blossoms into a mutual respect and true friendship that is a delight to watch. Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage should be commended for their performances—they take these two characters and add subtle depth to their motivations and reactions, without straying into schmaltz or melodrama. Jackson wisely chose not to stray too far from the source material in this instance, and the flourishes each actor added—Freeman’s frustration and Armitage’s hollow triumph—captured Tolkien’s intent in a visceral way that in many respects trumps the written presentation of the same tale.
So, too, do the fascinating performances turned in by Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen. While McKellen’s Gandalf has always radiated power and love in equal measure, Blanchett’s Galadriel has never been more emotionally bare than she is during the White Council’s attack on Dol Guldur. A story not told in the novel, the White Council’s attempt to expel the Necromancer from his stronghold—and the revelations that occur during the struggle—were the highlight of the film. Those scenes, more than any scene with the One Ring, serve as the connective tissue binding these six wonderful movies together. Blanchett, McKellen, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and the inimitable Christoper Lee returning as Saruman the White are stunning. While never pandering, their performance and Jackson’s direction take material found in back matter, appendices and Tolkien’s unfinished tales and make it seem essential to the story as a whole. Blanchett, in particular, shines bright. She embodies the power and tragedy of the elves of Middle-Earth in ways both subtle and overt. Her performance is a joy to behold.
The large setpieces—the Battle itself, the fortification of Erebor, the reclamation of Dale and the scouring of Dol Guldur—are shot in a vivid and dynamic style that has become Jackson’s hallmark. This film, like the other five, looks and feels like Middle-Earth. And while Jackson’s camera work can be busy at times—in large part due to the 3D release, in my opinion—his visual focus never strays far from the center of the story. He set out to make an epic character study, and I think he accomplished his goal.
I’d be remiss if I did not mention the excellent—if brief—performances turned in by Billy Connolly as Dain (of the Iron hills dwarves) and Ken Stott as Balin. Connolly provided comic relief that was both hilarious and complimentary to the story being told. And Stott finally shepherded Balin into the territory that has made the character a fan favorite in the books. While Aidan Turner’s Kili may have had more screen time over the course of the three movies, Balin ultimately proves to be second only to Thorin in import to both Bilbo and the larger story. It is no coincidence that Balin is the only dwarf to appear in both trilogies (albeit in somewhat…poorer…condition in The Fellowship of the Ring).
The Battle of the Five Armies is by no means a perfect film. The Tauriel storyline continues to perplex me, as does most of the wood elf-related fare. I understand what Jackson was trying to do, but I think he fell short in this instance. The inexplicable focus on Alfrid, former servant of the Master of Laketown, also felt a bit emotionally dishonest. Whether he was there for comic relief or as a contrasting mechanism highlighting Bard’s nobility, his presence took me out of the story every time he was on screen. He rang false, but not in the way Jackson intended.
The Battle of the Five Armies is a worthy conclusion to the last thirteen years of Peter Jackson’s work in Middle-Earth. Its reach never exceeds its grasp, and it is chock full of visually stunning action and scenery. It also has the weight of finality to it, which creates an emotional undercurrent both on screen and in the audience. Jackson acknowledges—in ways subtle and less so—that this particular adventure has finally reached an end. While the road goes ever on and on, movies—like the books upon which they are based—cannot. Jackson and Company have managed to compose one final love letter to both Tolkien and the legions of Middle-Earth fans. The Battle of the Five Armies concludes Jackson’s grand adventure in Middle-Earth in the best way possible—with a wry smile, a small tear, and a knock on the door.