Peter Jackson's unrecognisable The Battle of the Five Armies is a triumph of style over substance
It’s been a tough couple of weeks for James Nesbitt. On screens both big and small, Coleraine’s most famous son has been buried under a slew of grief-stricken madness in BBC’s The Missing and the big-budget stylings of Peter Jackson’s mighty and deeply flawed The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
Portraying kindly, rumpled dwarf, Bofur, Nesbitt brings an honest earthiness to Jackson’s second Middle Earth triptych, yet, unfortunately for him, his contribution continues to shrink significantly since the impressive early scenes of film one, subtitled An Unexpected Journey.
In committing himself so comprehensively to the kind of breathtaking tableau that has defined both his Hobbit trilogy and the towering Lord of the Rings triple header, Jackson essentially abandons rounded characterisation for glossy, CGI-fuelled spectacle. There simply isn’t room for much beyond this strangely spiritless bombast, be it for Nesbitt or anybody else.
Given the considerable box-office performance of the previous two entries (An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug), Jackson’s narrative makes few allowances for those who might not be entirely au fait with the series as it stands.
Rather he plunges straight into the action, picking up from where left off as the terrifying dragon, Smaug – infused with the molten tones of Benedict Cumberbatch – turns the fetid Lake-town into cinders in retribution for being disturbed in his nearby gilded lair.
As Bofur and friends scramble to escape the onslaught, only the stoic Bard – played with a degree of sub-Mortensen charisma by Luke Evans, star of the Northern Ireland-filmed Dracula Untold – chooses to challenge the beast.
It is an opening as exciting as it is inaccessible and, in the wake of this flaming bonanza, the smaller moments of displaced people and broken lives come off as flat, ancillary even. The sense that these quieter instances are somehow getting in the way of the titular battle is hard to shake.
As the band of dwarves led by Richard Armitage’s brooding Thorin resettle the great halls of a homeland once stolen by Smaug, the relative slightness of JRR Tolkien’s elegant source novel – a publication barely exceeding 300 pages – appears more obvious than ever.
Jackson, alongside co-screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro, reaches deep into Tolkien’s additional notes and appendices to bulk up this tale, peppering the story with nods to his later (earlier?) troika that range from subtle to downright ham-fisted. For a man tied to Middle Earth in the minds of the post-millennial generation, Jackson’s enthusiasm would now seem to outweigh his material.
With the author’s masterful construction stretched to the point of becoming unrecognisable, Jackson possesses little choice but to concentrate his abilities on realising a face-off afforded only a passing mention by Tolkien. More than half of the unusually spare running time (144 minutes) is taken up with an encounter between factions which are, in a interesting departure from the good-versus-evil tropes otherwise inherent to this milieu, competing for territory and riches.
The resulting donnybrook is a dazzling achievement of gorgeous visuals and technical prowess. Jackson has form here, his fondness for staging enormous scenes encrusted with lovingly rendered imagery shows no sign of waning. Indeed, it remains a skill set far removed from the grimy gorefests of his early career.
By the same token, familiarity may well breed fatigue and Five Armies presents nothing that fans of the Kiwi’s work – certainly as it extends to this genre – have not already witnessed.
Vast armies clash (a bizarre, digital Billy Connolly commands his host of ornery dwarves with raucous aplomb and a giant hammer; Lee Pace’s sinister Elf king, Thranduil, rides around on an elk), the camera swooping and veering between their rowdy lines. Hulking trolls, utilised as machines of war, lay siege to a city in the shadow of Thorin’s Lonely Mountain.
On automatic pilot Jackson may surpass most of his peers but the cold truth is that we have been here before. He can summon no instances to rival to the bravura barrel fight in The Desolation of Smaug and nor is the soaring, Oscar-winning, era-defining majesty of The Return of the King’s Pelennor Fields matched by any element in a picture now tagged as Middle Earth’s ‘defining chapter’.
As the force of his colossal ambition overwhelms everything, Jackson sees his characters suffocate beneath that weight. The Lord of the Rings, for all its marvels, was underpinned by the richly drawn fellowship in its midst, and while The Hobbit’s dwarven company exudes, at times, a similar spirit, it is given limited opportunity to complete its arc.
A collection of choppy, poorly scripted subplots are passed off as adequate storytelling – a triumph of style over substance.
Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellan) serves as weary expositor once more, though his explanations remain confusing even as he and the cameoing trio of Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and latter-day villain Saruman (Sir Christopher Lee, playing Sir Christopher Lee) explore the machinations of franchise scourge Sauron.
Armitage descends into a greed-clouded madness only to clamber out, with puzzling swiftness, and lead his comrades – including a club-wielding Nesbitt – into the breach. Meanwhile, the clunky romance between Kili (Dublin actor Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) endures as this trilogy’s most gratuitous fabrication.
Most regrettable of all, however, is the sidelining of the brilliant Martin Freeman, who disappears from view beneath the cacophonous din of full-scale conflict. A wonderfully grounded actor, he infuses his scenes with a humane maturity that staves off the encroaching melodrama, and it is the heartbreaking corruption of Bilbo Baggins, the eponymous Hobbit – a shrewd, courageous operator – which forms so central a strand of the Tolkien mythology.
Shamefully, his mounting obsession with the ring he found scrambling in the darkness of Gollum’s lair is left largely unattended until the end. These concluding references to later seminal events are neatly accomplished, perhaps, but Bilbo’s time in the spotlight ultimately feels like too little too late.
Jackson is no ordinary filmmaker, that much is obvious. Melding a cheeky edge of schlocky grubbiness with that capacity for epic high fantasy, his time as the custodian of Tolkien’s precious legacy should be judged as nothing less than a glowing success. Yet, with this newest instalment, the once gushing river has finally run dry. It is time to move on.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is on general release now.