There is something so simultaneously satisfying and melancholy about coming to the last page of a great novel – especially when the reader knows that the author is deceased and there is no hope of a sequel. For J. R. R. Tolkien’s legions of admirers, a watered-down version of that tristesse has been unfolding this week, as we bid farewell – presumably for good – to director Peter Jackson’s big-screen interpretations of the fantasy master’s magnificent “subcreation” known as Middle Earth.
The Battle of Five Armies shares both the strengths and the weaknesses of the previous two cinematic installments of The Hobbit. On the down side, the genetically improbable romance between Kíli the hunky Dwarf (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel the rebellious Elf (Evangeline Lilly) gobbles up an awful lot of the film’s focus, considering that there’s nothing remotely resembling it in the book. So does another bit of non-canon padding added for broad comic relief: the one-note cowardice and greed of Alfrid Lickspittle (Ryan Gage), councilor to the Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry, all too briefly seen here). The dopey bunny sled of Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) makes a return appearance as well, though it’s mercifully brief.
Otherwise the tone of this film is grimmer and more, well, epic than its two predecessors. Jackson’s predilection for ever-more-spectacular battle scenes reaches its apotheosis here, for better or for worse, and fans of pulse-pounding action sequences will have nothing to complain about. There’s not much exposition, all the setups having been laid down in the previous installments; and the Dwarves are pretty well done with zany antics as armies of practically every sentient species in Middle Earth converge on the Lonely Mountain to demand a share of Smaug’s treasure, once the dragon has been dispatched.
Indeed, much of the dramatic tension here is supplied by dissension in the Dwarven ranks and loss of faith in their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), as he tragically succumbs to a uniquely Dwarven form of obsession, paranoia and greed known as “dragon sickness.” These crucial scenes disconcertingly combine some of Jackson’s weakest staging with some of the film’s strongest acting on Armitage’s part. His scenes with Martin Freeman as Bilbo – the only one of his companions whom Thorin doesn’t suspect of hiding his coveted family heirloom, the Arkenstone – are extraordinarily gripping and nuanced, with the glassy-eyed Dwarf prince oblivious to the guilt playing over his hired burglar’s face. The rollercoaster ride of their antagonism/friendship supplies the emotional core of the tale: Armitage takes Thorin to a Shakespearean level of tragedy surpassing even Tolkien’s treatment of the character, while Freeman will totally own our mental picture of the increasingly brave and resourceful, fundamentally honest and practical Mr. Baggins for as long as he wants it. Too bad the series is done!
Speaking of rollercoasters, Jackson’s trademark over-the-top action scenes wear better on the eye and prove more propulsive in this third, slightly shorter installment than the chases through goblin and dragon lairs in the first two – partly because they happen outdoors and take advantage of New Zealand’s dramatic boulder-strewn scenery. The rescue of Gandalf and expulsion of the Necromancer/Sauron from Dol Guldur brings back Cate Blanchett from the Lord of the Rings franchise as a supremely badass Galadriel. Thorin’s final one-on-one battle with the fearsome chain-slinging Orc general Azog (Manu Bennett) on the surface of a frozen lake is impressively choreographed, and will put Game of Thrones fans in mind of last season’s notorious trial-by-combat between the Red Viper and the Mountain (though it’s thankfully somewhat less gory).
The climactic titular clash of Dwarves, Elves, Orcs, eagles and the surviving men (and a few feisty women and children) of Laketown is operatic in length and scale and introduces some surprising new CGI beasties whose nature I won’t spoil, except to hint that they represent rather a misinterpretation of a term that Tolkien used on his frontispiece map of Erebor. Similar to the massive Battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King, it supplies an excuse for Orlando Bloom as Legolas the Elf to do a fair bit of crumbling-scenery-surfing and giant-bat-hang-gliding. These scenes more than border on slapstick, but since Bloom’s gymnastics are more impressive than his acting, they seem a better use of his skills.
The most visually thrilling action scene, though, is the opener, as an incensed Smaug lays fiery waste to Laketown. The setting’s labyrinthine canals, stairs, bridges and alleys, like a Venice built all of highly combustible materials, make this sequence by itself worth the extra cost for a pair of 3-D goggles; Jackson has clearly learned how to optimize that medium.
Ian McKellen could probably play the wise-but-grumpy wizard Gandalf in his sleep by now – which is a good thing, since he spends most of his screentime in The Battle of Five Armies getting clobbered by the Necromancer and looking much the worse for wear afterwards, even though he’s supposedly decades younger than in the Lord of the Rings flicks. A winning new character here is Thorin’s cousin Dáin Ironfoot, Lord of the Dwarves of the Iron Hills; he’s spunkily played by the brilliant Scottish comedian Billy Connolly. The Aragornesque beefcake, human-scale heroism and righteous smiting of the Forces of Evil are supplied by Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman, briefly introduced in The Desolation of Smaug but here assuming a central role as the savior of Laketown.
All in all, quibbles aside, The Battle of Five Armies wraps up Peter Jackson’s magnum opus in fine style; it’s by far the most gorgeous visual spectacle to be seen on the big screen this year, and will be tough to surpass – even if the director does eventually succumb to the temptation to return to the well and dramatize some epic tale out of The Silmarillion or The Children of Húrin. Meanwhile, fellow Tolkien-lovers, despair not: A ring ends where it begins, and we can always go back to the beginning and look for the choice bits that we missed the first time through.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.