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Hobbit The Battle of the Five Armies, The

D: Peter Jackson / 144m

Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Ken Stott, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman, Graham McTavish, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Sylvester McCoy, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Billy Connolly, James Nesbitt, Ian Holm, John Bell, Mikael Persbrandt, Manu Bennett, John Tui, Benedict Cumberbatch

Angered by the attempt to kill him, Smaug (Cumberbatch) leaves the Lonely Mountain and the dwarf city of Erebor to wreak his vengeance on Laketown and its people. As he lays fiery waste to the doomed town, Bard the Bowman (Evans) seeks a way to defeat the dragon. With the aid of his son, Bain (Bell), Bard succeeds, but the town is in ruins. With winter fast approaching the inhabitants of Laketown look to Erebor and the promise made by Thorin (Armitage) when he was aided by Bard. But Thorin is in the grip of dragon sickness, his mind fixed on protecting the gold in the mountain, and he refuses to give the people of Laketown shelter; instead they are forced to take refuge in the ruined town of Dale.

Inside Erebor, Thorin’s madness worsens with the absence of the Arkenstone, the jewel that ensures his position as king of the dwarves. It transpires that Bilbo (Freeman) was able to take the jewel during his encounter with Smaug, but he fears giving it to Thorin. Meanwhile, the woodland elves, led by Thranduil (Pace), arrive in Dale with supplies for the humans and with the intention of reclaiming some jewels that are owed to him by Thorin’s forebears. Bard attempts to reason with Thorin but the dwarf leader refuses to yield. With an army of Orcs led by Azog the Defiler (Bennett) almost upon them, Gandalf (McKellen) arrives in time to provide support for the human-elf alliance.

Bilbo sneaks out of Erebor and gives the Arkenstone to Thranduil. One last attempt is made to avoid bloodshed but Thorin is adamant he will have war. With the arrival of a dwarf army led by Thorin’s cousin Dain (Connolly), a battle between the dwarves and the elves begins but is interrupted by the arrival of Azog’s forces. The dwarves and the elves and the humans all join forces against the orcs, while in Erebor, Thorin is on the brink of being completely subsumed by madness. And to make matters worse, Legolas (Bloom) and Tauriel (Lilly) discover that there is a second army of orcs heading for Erebor as well.

Hobbit The Battle of the Five Armies, The - scene

And so, in true George Lucas/Star Wars fashion, we come to the end of the journey – in the middle of it. Heralded as the “defining chapter” this is the movie that Jackson needed to get right above all the other Hobbit movies. Everything has been a prelude to this, the linking chapter in a six film series that has come to define fantasy movie-making on an epic, unprecedented scale, while always retaining a true sense of what’s most important: the characters. Whatever your thoughts on the idea that two movies would have been better than three, what can’t be disputed is the care and attention that Jackson and co-scripters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (with additional input from Guillermo del Toro) have taken in their efforts to bring Tolkien’s short novel to the screen.

Dispensing with the traditional prologue that shows previous events, The Battle of the Five Armies picks up directly after The Desolation of Smaug and throws us into one of the trilogy’s most exciting action sequences, as the dragon vents its wrath on the unfortunate Laketown. It’s a bravura piece of movie making, each burst and eruption of flame so convincingly rendered it’s hard to believe that most of the action has been created in a computer. With Smaug’s death it’s full speed ahead to the climactic battle that involves dwarfs, men, elves, orcs and eagles. It’s a fast-paced, often relentless movie, tilting headlong from one skirmish to another, barely pausing for breath, and yet able to maintain an emotional intensity that other fantasy movies can’t even begin to come near. It also shows Jackson near the height of his directorial powers – that honour goes to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – firmly in command of the material and assembling it all in a way that looks far too easy.

Jackson’s decision to make The Battle of the Five Armies the shortest of the Hobbit movies is a wise one, making it a more immediate, thrilling experience, but still with that depth of emotion that we’ve come to know and expect from each trip to Middle Earth. The relationship between Bilbo and Thorin is this movie’s finest flourish, so adroitly handled and acted by Freeman and Armitage that their scenes together are capable of making the viewer hold their breath. The added romance between Tauriel and Kili (Turner) is perhaps more perfunctory but is still touching enough to warrant its inclusion. In truth, the whole cast excel, with McKellen, Armitage and Evans the standouts in a movie with more than its fair share of superb performances. It’s been said before, but Jackson has created such a vivid world that even when he introduces creatures that very closely resemble the worms from Tremors (1990), they still feel a part of Middle Earth. This attention to detail, this “world building”, is what separates these movies from all the rest. And of course, there’s the action, inventive, compelling, and wonderfully choreographed for maximum effect. It’s impressive stuff – as you’d expect – and full of horror, humour, seamless CGI (unless, for some reason, it involves Radagast the Brown), and stirring feats of physicality (Legolas vs Bolg). But best of all, and after all has been said and done, and the battle is over, Jackson treats us to a wordless scene between Bilbo and Gandalf that is perfect in its simplicity.

With an ending that blends effortlessly with the beginning of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), the movie also doesn’t outstay its welcome, but mostly because this isn’t the end of an era, but the opening chapter in a much grander tale. As such its shorter running time is to be applauded; though don’t be fooled, the movie packs so much in it’s a masterclass of concise plotting and scripting. Some fans may still complain about the treatment of certain characters – Beorn (Persbrandt) has even less to do here than before – and the similarities between the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and this one are self-apparent, but all in all, Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit has been a success. To those who say The Hobbit trilogy is less dramatic or satisfying than The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it should be mentioned that they are very different “beasts”, one originally intended as a children’s novel, its follow-up more for older audiences. What Jackson has done is to keep the essential ingredients of the novels and expanded the material around them to make one long story albeit in two sections and with sixty years between them. It’s still a staggering achievement and worthy of as much high praise as can be doled out.

The same can also be said for the movie’s crew, including director of photography Andrew Lesnie, production designer Dan Hennah, and composer Howard Shore (and not forgetting the sterling work of second unit director Andy Serkis). These and the thousands of other people who have worked on the movies deserve some kind of reward for their efforts.

Rating: 9/10 – a rip-roaring, spectacular action movie to wind up the trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is guaranteed to put a smile on the face of fans, and reassure those doubters that Jackson had made a mistake by manipulating the novel into three movies; but take heart anyone who thinks they’ve seen the last of all things Middle Earth, there’s still an extended edition of the movie to come.