As Bilbo Baggins, Martin Freeman brings an endearing spirit to the first part of Peter Jackson’s epic new Tolkien trilogy
Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Martin Freeman as the quiet, peace-loving hobbit Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
In last Sunday’s Film of the Week, the protagonist, a Hollywood screenwriter played by Colin Farrell, had a title for his drama, “Seven Psychopaths”, but no plot. This week’s principal film, The Hobbit, began life in a not dissimilar fashion. Back in the early 1930s, when he was an Oxford don, JRR Tolkien was marking exam papers for the now defunct School Certificate when he came across a blank sheet. For some reason he wrote on it: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The line isn’t exactly “Call me Ishmael” or “Happy families are all alike”, but this first line of what was published in 1937 as a children’s book began what has proved to be a literary phenomenon, an alternative religion, an endless invitation to exegesis and a major industry that has led to an immensely successful trilogy of books and films about life in Middle-earth. Now the New Zealand screenwriter Peter Jackson, who followed up the Lord of the Rings trilogy with King Kong and The Lovely Bones, has returned to his old hobbits, and in collaboration with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, has turned the initially modest The Hobbit into a full-scale trilogy of its own.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 3D
Production year: 2012
Country: Rest of the world
Cert (UK): 12A
Runtime: 169 mins
Directors: Peter Jackson
Cast: Aidan Turner, Andy Serkis, Billy Connolly, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Elijah Wood, Evangeline Lilly, Hugo Weaving, Ian Holm, Ian McKellen, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Martin Freeman, Orlando Bloom, Richard Armitage
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Given three films, each presumably close to three hours long, Jackson and co have plenty of time on their hands, and 20 minutes of the film has passed before the immortal “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” is spoken. What we get at first is a back story from a posthumously published Tolkien work explaining how a blight fell on the underground city of Erebor when fire-breathing dragons, hungry for gold, attacked it, driving its dwarf inhabitants into exile. This extremely violent event, involving much death and destruction, warns the audience that it’s a film for extremely hardy kids. It sets up an invitation to Bilbo Baggins to take part in an adventurous quest proposed by the wizard Gandalf (the splendidly authoritative Ian McKellen). It involves him in joining a party of dwarves as the team’s “burglar” on a mission to regain their ancestral lands and wealth from Smaug, the dragon guarding them beneath the Lonely Mountain. A quiet, peace-loving hobbit, Bilbo is happily installed in his cosy subterranean home in the Shires, an idyllic corner of Merrie England inhabited by contented peasants who look like people in the background of paintings by Fragonard or Constable. Bilbo (Ian Holm, reprising his role from The Lord of the Rings) is seemingly writing his memoirs, puffing on his churchwarden pipe and blowing out smoke rings as big as haloes and eating regular meals. As he contemplates the past he’s replaced by his equally pacifist younger self, to which part Martin Freeman brings the same decent, commonsensical, very English qualities that informed his excellent Dr Watson on TV.
His first challenge is provided by the bald, bearded, beaky-nosed, unkempt dwarves, six pairs of them with rhyming names and all constantly brawling, eating and singing. They resemble tramps auditioning for the role of Magwitch in a musical of Great Expectations. The 13th dwarf is altogether more serious. He’s their leader, the handsome, tragedy-tinged Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). These knockabout scenes go on far too long, but eventually the quest begins and the dwarves, Gandalf and an initially reluctant Bilbo embark on their epic journey to the Lonely Mountain, encountering orcs, trolls, elves and goblins along the way and facing endless perils. There are echoes of the Old and New Testament, of similar journeys from Homer’s Odyssey through Morte d’Arthur to Gulliver’s Travels, and there are all the essential mythic elements: all-conquering swords, magical rings, mysterious maps, giant eagles and dangerous riddling contests such as the one engaged in by Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis).
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey trailer – video Link to this video
It’s an exciting story, easy to follow and lacking both the solemnity and the portentous symbolism of The Lord of the Rings. You don’t need to be a Tolkien devotee who knows their orcs from their elvish to enjoy the movie, and it’s generally less irritating than the book, with none of the archness Tolkien adopts when addressing children. Thankfully there’s also an absence of knowing references to other movies and TV shows, and there isn’t an American accent to be heard. The dwarves have various British regional brogues, mainly Celtic; the trolls speak comic cockney; the elves, largely played by Australian actors, stick to standard English.
The mountainous terrain, increasingly dark and menacing as the story progresses, at times resembles paintings by John Martin and Caspar David Friedrich, and is beautifully photographed by Jackson’s regular cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie, who has that feeling for landscape that’s such a feature of antipodean cinema. At the centre of the film, and sensitively handled by Jackson, are the relationships between Bilbo, his gruff mentor Gandalf and his antagonist Thorin, and it’s something children will respond to. In his book Anatomy of Criticism, the Canadian literary theorist Herman Northrop Frye makes a distinction between “high mimetic” and “low mimetic” figures, ie heroes who are mythically and socially superior to ordinary people or at the same human level as the rest of us. Gandalf, who teaches Bilbo what heroism is, and Thorin, who exhibits the necessary qualities in his actions, are high mimetic figures, while Bilbo is low mimetic. Bilbo can become a hero and then return to his former world, as indeed is suggested at the beginning of The Hobbit. What we see in Martin Freeman’s moving and endearing performance is Bilbo doing just that. I liked the film and its measured pace and, except when I found myself looking over the top of my glasses, was largely unaware of the 3D.