It’s been a long (long…) and winding road across mountains, rivers and valleys but finally, director Peter Jackson brings us to the end of an epic journey across Middle-earth. Like the terrain, this Hobbit franchise has been up and down with Jackson demonstrating both an obsessive concern for the details of JRR Tolkein’s book and a brazen disregard for it, embellishing on the story and certainly dragging it out too far. The endgame brings with it a much-needed shot of adrenaline – and relief.
Bilbo Baggins still remains a supporting player in his own franchise, but between the violent clashes that punctuate the film, Martin Freeman is a grounding influence in the role. There’s less of his goggle-eyed humour, though, as storm clouds gather over the Lonely Mountain, Erebor, where we last left Bilbo and the dwarves looking on in horror as Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) soared off into the night, in fire-breathing mood. The carnage starts here with typically spectacular scenes of fire on the water and the human citizens of Lake-town fleeing for their lives. Only Bard (a square-jawed Luke Evans) makes a stand against the dragon.
Just as typical is the time wasted on a peripheral character, Alfrid (Ryan Gage), a pantomime villain who runs about the burning town gathering coins and trying to save his own hide at the expense of women and children. The corrupting power of gold is central to the mythology of Middle-earth, but it’s already writ large in scenes with Thorin (played with smouldering angst by Richard Armitage) who is holed up inside Erebor to settle his throne and guard its glittering dunes of treasure. When the Elvish army roll up outside, hotly pursued by legions of Orcs (everyone looking to stake their claim) Thorin aims to sit back while they tear each other apart. It’s up to Baggins to try and broker peace by filching the all-powerful ‘arkenstone’ for use as a bargaining chip.
Inevitably, the political push-and-shove is just a short prelude to the almighty ruckus promised in the title and it’s a shame that Jackson didn’t look to invest some more time in this backroom intrigue. That would have been truer to Tolkien instead of his attempts to concoct drama out of Alfrid’s scavenging and the star-crossed romance between his invented Elvish heroine Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner). Of course, Jackson is never more at home in Middle-earth than when he’s pitting these mythical creatures against each other in physical conflict and the five-way battle when it erupts is, indeed, a roaring, seismic wave of extravagant sword-n-sandals action.
The armies butt up against each other in brutal but aesthetically grand formation, colliding in meticulously designed chaos which is, also, strangely bloodless. Jackson was clearly determined to secure a 12A rating, so the violence comes sanitised as well as glamourized – and therein lies a problem. At every turn there are cautionary notes on the lust for treasure, but scrapping over territory is fair play and more than that, it’s depicted as a noble quest. If we could see the blood of the many soaked into that land, would the argument remain convincing? This is where Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkein’s work gets a little muddied, reducing the battle of good vs evil to a question of who can hit hardest.
Jackson’s skill is in presenting an awe-inspiring, wide-angle view of Armageddon, taking you in amidst the action yet also standing remote. He strikes a deeper chord of tension in the intimate one-on-one skirmishes, because they carry more emotional weight; Orlando Bloom’s moody archer Legolas grapples with an Orc on a falling bridge in defence of Tauriel, but it’s Thorin’s showdown with the Orcs’ leader atop a frozen waterfall that provides a fitting crescendo. A sense of karmic circularity also ties things off nicely, with Jackson paving the way for the continuing adventures of Legolas, Gandalf (the reassuring presence of Sir Ian McKellen) and the next generation of ring-bearing hobbits. Of course, what goes around comes around, but it has to stop somewhere.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is in cinemas from tomorrow (12th December)