The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Martin Freeman surrounded by dwarfs in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

21 September

 

 

Publication of The Hobbit, 1937

On this day in 1937, George Allen & Unwin first published a children’s story by John Ronald Ruel Tolkien, the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford. It was called The Hobbit: or There and Back Again, and had grown out of pipesmoke gatherings of an informal literary group of Oxford academics called the Inklings, who met at a pub on Tuesday mornings. Perhaps as a reaction against the modernist experimentation of writers such as James Joyce, the Inklings favoured strong narratives and fantasy, both of which are present by the imperial ton in Tolkien’s story of a hobbit who sets off on a great quest with a wizard. The wizard is of course Tolkien himself, or more generally, Oxford dons. Hobbits are the students, small in stature compared to the great men. Women? As in the Oxford of the time, they barely featured and were drawn as creatures of great scarcity and wonderment. The cosy atmosphere of Hobbiton is the snug, toasting-fork world of the Oxford don. Meanwhile, outside the Shire in the industrial Midlands, in which Oxfordshire sat, lay the fire-breathing regions of industrial production, such as Birmingham. The Black Country more generally might be thought of as the model for Mordor. Though it’s also worth remembering that Tolkien served in the First World War, where he fought on the Somme, so scenes of tumultuous battle and great bloodshed were not unfamiliar. The Hobbit, grounded in the personal but flying into the fantastical, was an immediate success, and the publishers asked for more. As for Tolkien’s fellow Inkling, CS Lewis, he said, “Prediction is dangerous, but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”

 

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012, dir: Peter Jackson)

Agreed, there was very little reason to turn a short book into three long films, apart from the obvious financial one. But director Peter Jackson does manage to do some wonderful things with the original source material. The casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins is a masterstroke, Freeman coming across as a gentle, funny and homely kind of soul who would not be tempted easily out of the Shire onto a wild chase towards danger. Jackson has also picked up a few tricks from the Harry Potter series, and spends time working on the more human touches, building character, establishing milieu. And there are a few tips of the hat to Pirates of the Caribbean too, the quips, the backchat. Which really helps the extended opening sequence – the arrival of Gandalf and the huge dwarf party held at Baggins’s home. After that we’re all off on the adventure to banish the dragon Smaug and recover the kingdom of Erebor. And though there is a touch of the same problem that bedevilled Lord of the Rings – if you can magic someone back to life every time they die, where exactly is the jeopardy? – Jackson really comes into his own with the extended first meeting with Gollum, the hobbit originally called Smeagol until prolonged exposure to the Ring turned him into the hideous subterranean creature. It is the highlight of the book, in fact it’s one of the great passages in children’s literature. And Freeman and Andy Serkis (back in mo-cap as Gollum) make the most of it. The film is much flabbier than the book, admittedly, but Jackson’s achievment is to make his first part of the Hobbit trilogy immersive. And as the CGI starts to overwhelm the human actors, it’s easy to either lose interest and start complaining that it’s all a bit too much like a video game. Or to disappear almost entirely into Middle Earth with the characters on screen.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The 48 frames per second technical innovation
  • Play “spot the face” with the dwarfs as familiar actors are rendered down to pint size
  • A fabulous eccentric turn by Sylvester McCoy as crackpot wizard Radagast the Brown
  • It is probably going to be better than part 2

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

8 April 2013-04-08

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit

Out in the UK this week

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Having eventually run out of patience with the Lord of the Rings (with the books you could at least skip the endless battle descriptions), I wasn’t expecting to enjoy The Hobbit. I was wrong. Director Peter Jackson has absorbed the humanising touches of the Harry Potter series, the rambunctious sense of fun of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (at its best, I hasten to add. POTC could also be a hell of a drag) and made The Hobbit an immersive piece of storytelling with a lot of energy. Surrender to its flow – enjoy Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, and Martin Freeman’s pretty much perfect Bilbo Baggins – and notice how Jackson spends a lot of time making us feel the warmth and security of the Shire, establishing Bilbo’s essentially home-loving, fearful character before the gang head off on their adventure. The best bit, as in the book, is Bilbo’s initial encounter with Gollum. But there are other tiny delights – Sylvester McCoy’s crazy wizard Radagast the Brown and his rabbit-drawn sled, for one. The plot is entirely familiar – some chat, some peril, a saviour coming over the hill in the nick of time, and if that fails, then magic; repeat until end credits. But it’s all rendered excellently, thanks to the 48 frames-per-second cameras. The technology has moved on from Lord of the Rings and in reality this is much more an animated film with the odd human, the odd helicopter shot of New Zealand. Maybe that’s why it works so well.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – at Amazon

 

 

Zaytoun (Artificial Eye, cert 15, DVD)

Zaytoun takes a while to get its story up and running – an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian kid in 1980s Lebanon head off on a danger-stewn road trip back to their shared conflicted homeland. And once it does it travels an entirely familiar path. If I were to suggest that each protagonist winds up understanding and liking the other more you probably wouldn’t die of shock. But it’s nicely done, the cinematography is glorious, the acting (Stephen Dorff very good and 13-year-old Abdallah El Akal even better) is subtle and believable and the soundtrack too is entirely appropriate – the mournful twang of the oud suiting entirely the situation out there.

Zaytoun – at Amazon

 

 

What Richard Did (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Having given us the distinctive Adam & Paul in 2004 and Garage in 2007 – two faintly Pinteresque dramas about people it was hard to like – Lenny Abrahamson turns the tables with a highly individual film following Richard (Jack Reynor), a young Irish man who is a bright, attractive, sporty, academic, decent and funny alpha male whose world is compromised by “what he did”. I won’t ruin the film – which is great – by telling you what it is. It doesn’t matter. Abrahamson and writer Malcolm Campbell have crafted a drama that is almost elemental, a meditation on masculine virtue with a punchy throughline and an almost medieval interest in chivalric behaviour, perfectly disguised by its modern booze-and-craic setting.

What Richard Did – at Amazon Instant

 

 

Mission to Lars (Clear Vision, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)

Kate Spicer takes her brother Tom, who has the Fragile X variety of autism, off to meet his hero, Lars Ulrich, drummer with the band Metallica. It’s a challenge/jeopardy style documentary – “will my brother actually get to meet his hero? Will the hero turn out to be an asshole?” – which is undercut by the fact that Spicer is a London journalist with a lot of connections, so automatically has more chance of achieving her goal. The other unmentioned elephant in the room is the film itself. What self-respecting metal band whose glory days are perhaps behind them wouldn’t fancy a bit of positive publicity? These objections melt away as the documentary progresses and the other story starts to exert itself – of a careerist sister re-connecting with her flesh and blood. Grins from ear to ear. Very lovely.

Mission to Lars – at Amazon

 

 

I, Anna (Artificial Eye, cert 15, DVD)

Charlotte Rampling’s son, Barnaby Southcombe, made this and he got mum to star in it, playing a rather odd woman who murders – or did she? – some guy she met at a speed-dating event. If the idea of Rampling riding on a bus, working in a place that looks like a department store is unsettling enough, the fact of her being in a genre thriller is also pretty unusual and sets us up for some unexpected shocks. These arrive in the shape of Gabriel Byrne, as a detective obsessed with Anna, who doesn’t realise she might be the killer he’s looking for. That is not a spoiler, by the way, the film delivers at least two more plot twists that arrive entirely unannounced and only serve to drop us further into potboiler territory. Byrne and Rampling are good though, particularly the scenes they play together, where it’s as if we can see right into their thoughts, while their mouths spew out all manner of other nonsense. I think that’s called great acting.

I, Anna – at Amazon

 

 

Love Crime (Arrow, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

A French psycho thriller starring Kristin Scott Thomas as a high-flying executive, Ludivigne Sagnier as the younger assistant whose wealth of bright ideas and youthful ambition mean she’s heading for a showdown – one that involves someone’s death. It’s a plot-driven affair, so no more of that here. Suffice to say that Love Crime has found a new wrinkle on the old formula. Though why it takes so long to inform us of that fact I really don’t know.

Love Crime – at Amazon

 

 

Entertaining Mr Sloane (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD)

This dark, sex-obsessed comedy from 1970, the best translation of any Joe Orton play to the screen, is also the best performance on film by Beryl Reid, playing Kath, a tubby menopausal woman with a penchant for see-through clothes who is entirely taken in by the randy young buck (Peter McEnery) she encounters one day sunbathing in a cemetery. Mr Sloane is of course a rotter. The film’s great dramatic trick is that Kath’s family are even worse. Entertaining Mr Sloane sees Joe Orton taking on the farce, the 1960s obsession with youth and the availability of easy sex and throwing a pot of piss over them all. It’s a dyspeptic British classic.

Entertaining Mr Sloane – at Amazon 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013