The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Review Sherlockabilia Shop Now Open

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Review * 14 December 2014

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Please be aware, this review contains some spoilers of material contained in the original novel - if you've read that, you're safe to read this.

The cinematic journey to Middle Earth reaches its conclusion after thirteen years with the final part of The Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies, with Martin Freeman returning as Bilbo Baggins alongside an exhaustive cast including Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Evangeline Lily, Orlando Bloom, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Perhaps 'journey' is the wrong term to apply to this final piece of the saga however, as for the first time the amount of onscreen travel is relatively restricted to the expansive battlefield where the titular conflict erupts. Following the literally blistering opening, as Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) lays cataclysmic waste to Lake Town before meeting a roundly satisfying demise at the bow of Bard (Luke Evans), the narrative turns to the politicking and manoeuvring that takes place among the various parties that hold claim to the wealth held within the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, while Thorin (Richard Armitage) begins a dark descent into madness. As recent history has shown us, and as director Peter Jackson is keenly aware, a place presided over by a dictatorial figure that suddenly finds itself without that individual to maintain the status quo is very likely to descend into utter chaos, and that is very much what occurs here. It has to be said the moments building to the conflict are masterfully handled by Jackson, as Thorin's company are joined by an army of Dwarves led by a curiously CGI Billy Connolly (also responsible for the first outbreak of genuine bad language in Middle Earth), the aloof yet furious Thranduil (Lee Pace) and the Elf armies of Mirkwood, and the heroic Bard leading the Dickensian citizens of Lake Town (with some distractingly delivering the clunkiest performances in the film). With the sudden addition of two armies of Orcs commanded by the villainous Azog thrown into the mix, the film explodes into a protracted, inventive and slightly wearying battle sequence that in terms of sheer scale bests anything in The Lord of the Rings. The intensively designed location and choreography of the various opponents make it clear Peter Jackson is very much going for broke here, crafting a battle distinct from those he has previously created while retaining the focus on the characters struggling through his trademark love of anarchic, crunchy violence.   

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It's fair to say though that the 'smallest' member of the cast does come off as slightly lost at times amongst all this. Martin Freeman remains the beating heart of the entire film however, investing Bilbo with the quiet heroism that sees him fending off both Orcs and the growing insanity of Thorin in equal measure, while craftily taking charge of events to break the stalemate over the treasure hoard. He was clearly the perfect actor to play the original, quintessential Hobbit, encompassing stoutness of heart, bravery, humour, and emotive weight, all tinged with the slight foreboding surrounding the vitally important gold ring he carries. Martin is never better in this film though than in the moments that surround Thorin's death, delivering a keening of grief and disbelieving befuddlement that is world's away from the utterly shattered devastation we've previously seen him display following the 'death' of Sherlock Holmes.

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If there was one performance that stands out the most in the film however it would belong to Richard Armitage, dominating proceedings utterly, as the arc of the plot circles around Thorin's redemptive path from madness to heroic end, all delivered with a thundering, Shakespearian presence. Despite the demise of the dragon, in a genius touch, composer Howard Shore's shifting and creeping theme for Smaug shifts to Thorin as the greed threatens to overwhelm him, with Armitage's voice manipulated in a similar way as Cumberbatch's. It is a fearless, dangerous display from him, as he risks losing the sympathies of the audience utterly, and so when he does emerge from his stupor, it is a triumphant moment. Like Bilbo, Ian McKellen's Gandalf is also something of a spectator to events here, consistently someone no one listens to despite the fact he is always right. His rescue from the clutches of a resurgent Sauron (Benedict Cumberbatch) by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) is a brief, thrilling sequence that is over far too quickly, seeing the White Wizard unleash an utterly spectacular amount of ass-kickery and putting the Elf Queen and the Grey Wizard in a place that at last explains her sadness on hearing of his demise in The Fellowship of the Ring. Like Smaug's appearance earlier in the film though, Sauron is swiftly chased off, positioning the character for his later role in the other trilogy while not leaving much room for performance in the role by Benedict Cumberbatch. Elsewhere, Orlando Bloom's Legolas is again elevated to some superhuman heroics that verge on the enjoyably ridiculous at times, and the other continuing thread of the invented-for-the-film romance between Dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner) and Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) remains engaging if tragically unsatisfying by the close.

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They are among several characters the film lacks a definitive ending for, while others, such as Legolas, are given an unnecessary closing moment to bridge to the other trilogy that at first glance could lend some unintended humour - to general audiences, he at first could be mistaken to have been riding fruitlessly around for roughly sixty years looking for a certain individual, so no wonder he looks so pleased to arrive at the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring. In addition, some narrative threads that have been cast during the film are left unresolved - The Arkenstone, the vital McGuffin that drives the early narrative, is utterly abandoned as soon as open conflict explodes on the battlefield, as are the motivations of Thranduril that are introduced theatrically here. Thankfully though, those motivations are already sown in the Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey, so are not as leftfield as they could have been.

Indeed, those Extended Editions are perhaps the bane of the reviewer when it comes to these films, as ultimately we're not seeing the full story when we visit the cinema. More so than any of the other films in the series, The Battle of the Five Armies shares the most in common with the theatrical cut of The Return of the King, in that you can't help but feel dramatic excisions have taken place in the editing suite to propel the cinema experience forward, while withholding critical elements for that future Extended Edition release - not least the culmination of the Arkenstone story, which Tolkien specifically featuring being interred with Thorin at his funeral. It almost seems as if Jackson was desperate to avoid the 'too many endings' criticism of The Return of the King, so hopefully the future extended cut will remove any qualms we have with the closing of this story.

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But despite this, The Battle of the Five Armies manages to be a fitting conclusion to this epic series of films in the theatrical incarnation. The focus may waver from our titular lead character more than we would like, but it manages to dovetail quite beautifully with the opening of The Lord of the Rings trilogy at its close. Two years ago we noted An Unexpected Journey was a very different beast from The Lord of the Rings at first glance, but with this trilogy now complete it is clearly a singular piece that builds across six films, with elements from The Hobbit trilogy reinforcing moments from The Lord of the Rings in a highly satisfying manner - all of Ian Holm's work in particular is gifted far greater emotion thanks to the performance of Martin Freeman. If this is indeed the final time we will visit this world - as it should be - it is a fine, bruising and emotional farewell to the spectacularly created cinematic vision of Middle Earth that Peter Jackson has been inviting us into for over a decade.

This review is the final part of a trilogy of reviews, starting with An Unexpected Journey and continuing with The Desolation of Smaug

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