Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (M) ★★★★★
Directed by Peter Jackson.
It's over. Six films, and for a group of Wellingtonians who started working in a ramshackle factory in Miramar twenty-odd years ago, the end of one of the greatest film-making odysseys that has ever been attempted.
And what a way to bring the curtain down. The Battle of The Five Armies is more than just another blockbuster in a world groaning under the weight of them.
* Hobbits clear out of Wellywood
* The final Hobbit: The reviews are in
This is a tale brought thunderously to a close, it is a film that moved in directions I didn't see coming, and it delivers us the purpose and the heart of the story – finally – in a fabulously propulsive fashion.
This is the Hobbit instalment we had been hoping for. It is bloody, dark, and utterly excellent. The Battle of The Five Armies is – of course – a war story.
The last time we saw the band of dwarfs and Bilbo, they had made their way into the Lonely Mountain, and taken possession of the hoard of treasure there.
The Dragon Smaug had flown off to lay waste to the people of Lake-Town, and the wizard Gandalf was caged and captive, presumably awaiting a grisly fate at the hands of a couple of ferocious orcs.
The Battle of The Five Armies doesn't hang around. The film opens as Smaug swoops down on Lake-Town and fire rains from the sky. Buildings explode into flame, terrified people flee in blind panic, and the Lord of the town (Stephen Fry) meets exactly the fate that film-makers always reserve for anyone who values gold over other people's lives. Up in the mountains the Dwarfs look on, wracked with guilt that they have helped cause this horror.
Only the leader Thorin seems to accept the loss of life as a inevitable cost of war, as the 'dragon sickness' of the cursed gold eats into his mind, and turns him against his own better angels.
All this is pretty much as Tolkien wrote. On the page it's unforgettable, but brought to life on screen it's a scene straight out of hell. And that, I guess, is what The Battle of The Five Armies achieves time and again for the next two and a half hours. We know the events of the story.
But they are vast, and it seems impossible that they could be convincingly done and still retain our interest in the individual characters fates.
But not once did I lose track, or concern, with any of the various plot threads and journeys that Peter Jackson was weaving together.
Where the first instalment in this series took too long to get anywhere, and the second sagged between set-pieces, this film roars into life from the first frame, doesn't let up for a moment, and then achieves something that not even The Return of The King could manage; it ends quickly, satisfyingly, and on one perfectly well judged note.
The special effects are spectacular and beautifully integrated, with the work of the set-builders and the digital artists absolutely seamlessly joined together. There might still be a few jump-the-shark moments (or, as we call them now; running-up-the-elephant moments) but the sight of Orlando Bloom's Legolas apparently defying gravity like Wile E Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon must now count as Jackson in-joke, and we laugh when we would once have groaned.
But the greatest effect in these films has always been the one that Jackson hid in plain sight, and it doesn't get the attention it should: The acting - particularly Martin Freeman's realisation of Bilbo Baggins - is just extraordinary.
Though the dialogue occasionally betrays its children's book-origins, and though the world is exploding around him, Freeman has carried this tale from beginning to end.
Without Bilbo's journey, there is no story, and Freeman has let us into that journey with exceptional skill and subtlety.
Around him Richard Armitage (especially) and co have been flawless, but Freeman, in his quiet, measured, unfussy way, has been a masterclass. The Battle of The Five Armies feels like the reason this trilogy exists. It is complete, and exactly as it needed to be.
Driving home from the screening, through Wellington's suburb of Miramar, past Park Road and Stone Street, where Weta is based, I stopped the car for a moment and looked at those -still- shabby and unprepossessing buildings.
There's been some magic made behind those walls.
It's changed the city, the country, and us.
Twenty years ago, no one could have known what was about to happen.
Pete, Fran, Richard, all of you.
Thank you. It's been a hell of a ride.