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And so it is our last visit to Middle Earth, and a bittersweet one it is. Peter Jackson’s finale to his pair of trilogies is a triumph of spectacle and humanity, notwithstanding that the human beings of the piece are not the main characters. It’s only flaw, and that is a relative one, is that it picks up in media res, with Smaug the gold-hoarding dragon terrorizing the simple lake folk. If you have not seen the last two films, it is a rousing start, but one that doesn’t dwell on the whys or the whos. This is a film that expects its audience to have done its homework, and to have an attention span beyond that of a fidgety gnat. The reward for those contingencies is great and more than worth the effort.
As the story continues, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) has taken possession of his ancestral home, from which he and the other dwarves were exiled by, among others, that dragon. But rather than rejoicing, there is concern for the state of Thorin’s mind, as he slowly succumbs to the curse the gold of the kingdom under the mountain possesses. It is the trigger for war between the dwarves and the lake folk, now led by Bard (Luke Evans), the master bowman who brought down the dragon. Thorin reneges on his promise of reward, catching Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) in the uncomfortable position of keeping a secret from Thorin in order to keep the peace. That Bilbo has his own struggles with the Ring of Power he found in the goblin tunnels is of secondary importance here, paving the way as it does for the action of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Meanwhile, Gandalf the Gray (Ian McKellan) is still a prisoner in his pendant cage dangling over a desolate crag, and the Orc general Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett for the motion-capture) is closing in on Thorin, the gold, and Middle Earth domination.
It does take a certain bravado to start a film with a fire-breathing dragon swooping about, but it’s not hubris. The stakes are high in this film, and such an incendiary start is not just showy, it is necessary. This is a complicated tale about good and evil with forces at work over which none of the protagonists have control, torn as they are between warring loyalties, and the seductive nature of evil, as externalized as the dragon’s hoard of gold, the gold that has been infused with the dragon’s avaricious, suspicious nature. There are also marauding Orcs, whose lust for gold is a mere element in their overall desire for conquest and destruction. The observation about the evil that is manifest as opposed to the more subtle one represented by the gold is sharp, but not pedantic. The spectacle of a refugee returning home only to become the thing he hated. The divided loyalties are played out with the forbidden love between the dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner), and the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and the dwarves’ consternation over Thorin’s growing madness, among others, have an emotional power beyond mere dialectic, as does the film as a whole, which is epic without for a moment abandoning the emotional stakes involved for all concerned. For all the spectacle, and there is plenty, there is nothing more suspenseful than the dark majesty of the madness growing in Armitage’s eyes, and Jackson is smart enough to let his camera linger on such things with the same attention as he does to Legolas (Orlando Bloom) climbing a staircase of falling stones.
He also never abandons the sense of aetherial myth, even in the midst of battle. There are images of haunting beauty that are also the stuff of nightmares. Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) is a pale wisp drifting through gray, misty ruins on her way to do savage battle with phantom warriors, and Azog is equally pale, though it is the loathsome whiteness of decay, still grotesquely fascinating in his ugliness and the superb CGI and motion capture that makes him absolutely real, and even capable of a contemptuous smirk.
The titular battle is brutal, and like all the special effects, rendered with work that is beyond astonishing, but they do not eclipse the performances that breathe life into the film. Armitage is subtle when he needs to be and bombastic when that is called for. Freeman’s Bilbo is still ironically self-deprecating, but there is a wounded quality to his newfound courage, that of a hobbit whose innocence has been tempered with sorrow of experience. Lilly, too, should be singled out, if only for one scene in which she gazes on Kili with a depth of love that encompasses eternity in less than a minute.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES does what all great films should do, it leaves you wanting more. Even if it’s just revisiting the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy,