Two years ago I wrote my
Can our most trusted guide in Middle Earth make a decent film out of the what amounts to a small section of Tolkien’s famous work, and is this a fitting end to our time there?
He can, and The Battle of the Five Armies is a triumphant, if flawed, end to near-enough two decades of cinematic invention and gloriously realised high fantasy,. We have seen the re-creation of iconic characters, borne elvish tattoos and hobbit feet, joined a vanguard of the CG revolution and welcomed a new army of fans to the literary classic. It brings down the curtain on an extraordinary achievement and a cinematic tour-de-force.
It is not the best film of Jackson’s Middle-Earth saga, and suffers from the problems inherent with the previous Hobbit films, but it is a solid end to our time there, with a hidden emotional force which catches us off-guard.
I’ll be sparse with the spoilers, but if you haven’t read the books you really should.
The late change of title from There and Back Again to The Battle of the Five Armies is a necessary one. Though we dally with the various threats building from all sides the titular conflict takes up most of the film. It is dizzing, confusing and thrilling, and can feel as if a narrative auto-pilot is engaged as we charge to the final page.
We begin moments after The Desolation of Smaug ended, with the dragon streaking through the sky ready to unleash a bellyful of fire onto the unsuspecting Lake-towners. There is no ‘previously on The Hobbit…’ here, we are carried breathlessly on with little regard for those not caught up. The initial battle is a fiercesome display, with Smaug’s devastating promise given full and terrifying execution. The uneven feeling of its previous chapters remains, but once the fate of Lake-Town is decided Jackson brings his focus entirely on the coming battle.
The film does miss an all powerful evil, but instead replaces it with vicious infighting, with the danger that comes from sanity blinded by the glare of gold and there is a furious energy to make the film worthy of its name. Unfortunately at times the battles become confused; five armies stab and sway across the field and the human connection is sometimes lost. It lurches between the hell of battle and the cowering terror in a way the previous trilogy did not, and the emotional journey is a rough, jarring one at times.
The invention slows down the pace, not everything justifies its place in the script. The to and fro of allegiances and battle fronts becomes exhausting but never boring. This is crucial. Few directors can mount such a massive war and keep us interested throughout. The greater story, of which the battle is a final obstacle, is never lost though unlike the fate of the Ring it isn’t given the same dread purpose. In the end this is about finding home, fighting for it, and learning the value of the journey – just as it ever was.
Martin Freeman is the constant, throughout it all we follow him and his character through Hell, and he, Richard Armitage, Lee Pace and Luke Evans have the lion’s share of the work to do amidst the raging war. I can’t pretend not to enjoy seeing Legolas back on screen, though his acrobatics and Matrix-like command of orc-slaying gets more silly as time goes on. Evangeline Lilly is fantastic once again, though fails under the shadow of a stereotype far too easily as the film concludes, she brings a tangible gravity to her flighty role.
There are some stunning shots which showcase Jackson’s tireless invention necessary to cloak the echoes inherent in his continuing time in Middle-Earth. The frozen waterfall and the Escheresque dominion of Erebor spring to mind, the Dwarves and the Elves in battle (you’ll know the moment…), and more are served very well by Jackson’s hand. The director also strains our limits of believability once again (Legolas’s elephant-surfing looks positively idle next to some of the more ridiculous attacks here), and there are wonderful hints of what is to come, particularly after a set piece which is the cinematic equivalent of a greatest hits encore.
Curiously the end is unshowy, with characters, and screenwriters, at a loss for words once the battlefield falls silent. There is no celebration, it feels like a wearying end to a grand journey.
Despite its uneven tone and patience-wearing narrative padding Jackson’s previous films come to this one’s rescue like a Deus Eagle Machina. We have walked with wizards, dwarves and a hobbit in this long quest and walked with more in the quest to come. We have seen things utterly new and brilliant, and witnessed good go against evil on a scale rarely attempted, more rarely achieved. Every step taken in Middle Earth had purpose, and all of this is brought to bear here.
It is stirring, spectacular and, unexpectedly at journey’s end, possessive of an emotional charge which has been with us since Galadriel felt a change in the water. We are done with Middle Earth for now, two of its many stories have been told brilliantly and unforgettably. We leave it on a strong and sombre note, with a door closed and a warm hearth and the knowledge that there will never be another journey like it.