The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey - review

Peter Jackson has managed to dart off in new directions as he returns to Middle Earth.

The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey (12A)
dir: Peter Jackson

J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit was published in 1937 for a young readership, with the author moving into a more highfalutin register for the sequel, The Lord of the Rings (written as one volume but split into three in the mid-1950s). The New Zealand film-maker Peter Jackson is approaching the material from the opposite direction. Having secured an inbuilt audience of many millions through his more adult Lord of the Rings movies, he may have been tempted to apply their solemnity to his new three-part film of the earlier, jauntier book. On the evidence of the first episode, An Unexpected Journey, he has resisted.

In print, The Hobbit is far superior to its sequel: it’s accessible and full of pace and punch where LOTR, with its tortuous descriptions of the density of bogland and undergrowth, can be recommended to only the most patient devotees of Gardeners’ Question Time. The later book’s sales figures (more than 150 million copies and counting) prove as effectively as anything by E L James that masochism is big business. However, Jackson somehow managed to find the wistful magic buried in the marshy prose.

The LOTR films, released between 2001 and 2003, had sincerity and cinematic sweep, not to mention eyefuls of handsome New Zealand landscape previously unexploited on screen. They also had longueurs within longueurs, though the extended viewing time brought the audience closer to the arduous experience of the characters, even if the perils faced during all those hours in a cinema seat came not from giant spiders and snarling Orcs but deep-vein thrombosis.

Other parties had tried to adapt LOTR, including the Beatles, who failed to interest Stanley Kubrick in making a version for them to star in. (It’s worth noting that their 1965 film, Help!, revolves around a sacrificial ring lodged on Ringo Starr’s finger.) In the 1970s, John Boorman shopped around a script featuring a scene in which Frodo Baggins has sex, which is a bit like putting cancan dancers in a Stalingrad movie – lust for power being the nearest thing to carnality in the chaste vistas of Middle Earth. Ralph Bakshi made an atmospheric 1978 animated version but its commercial failure precluded any follow-ups.

It would be unfair, then, to mock the studios and financiers who baulked at Jackson’s idea of making the project as two movies. Wizard hats off to Bob Shaye at New Line Cinema, who took an educated leap of faith by suggesting that Jackson should make a trilogy.

Jackson shed a large amount of his body weight after finishing the third LOTR film – anywhere between three and five stone depending on whom you read (and whether the director removed his shoes before climbing on the scales). But his subsequent films, King Kong and The Lovely Bones, were not correspondingly streamlined. The latter was so feeble in vision and philosophy that a return to Tolkien (after The Hobbit’s original director, Guillermo del Toro, stepped down following production delays) seemed the only possible salve for his reputation. Still, my heart sank at the news that a book as breezy as The Hobbit was being given the nine-hour treatment.

Happily, An Unexpected Journey has zip. Set in Middle Earth 60 years earlier than LOTR, it begins with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) nominating the pipe-and-slippers hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to join a hazardous mission. A band of dwarves plan to wrest back control of their kingdom, Erebor, from the dragon Smaug, which is snoozing among stolen treasures while the ordinary folk live in fear and poverty. I won’t say “banking crisis allegory” if you don’t.

Like LOTR, An Unexpected Journey revolves, essentially, around an eventful country ramble. (As a character in Kevin Smith’s Clerks II remarks of the first trilogy: “All it was was a bunch of people walking. Three movies of people walking through a fucking volcano.”) But the new film is distinguished by a swashbuckling simplicity, a sense that the thrill of the adventure might not need to be paid for with quite so many ponderous interludes.

For an indication of the differences, you need only compare the Ents, those impossibly dull walking-talking trees from LOTR, with their nearest equivalent in An Unexpected Journey: a range of jagged, stony mountains that knock seven shades of flint out of one another. But not everything has changed. Humour in Middle Earth remains folksy: someone falls over, someone else has the size of his sword impugned. The sanctuary of Rivendell still resembles a tacky New Age spa and weighty conversations occur on mountain-side platforms. When a flock of benevolent birds deposits the dwarves on a vertiginous rock face, no one has the presence of mind to say: “Not to be ungrateful but couldn’t you have dropped us on the mezzanine level?”

Set pieces are cut together fashionably fast without any cost to clarity. The attack by Smaug the dragon on the dwarf kingdom is staged without showing the beast itself: we glimpse nothing but its stomping feet, its slashing tail and the rippling tease of a dragon kite dancing above the rooftops. Through the wonders of motion-capture, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the monster, but we will have to wait until next year’s episode (The Desolation of Smaug) to see whether those layers of concealing pixels will throw his many amorous admirers off the scent.

Most caveats about An Unexpected Journey will pertain to Jackson’s use of 48-frames-persecond 3D technology (as opposed to the standard 24). It brings a polished clarity to the nocturnal scenes but looks appalling during chases through a sunlit forest, worse even than the fuzzy blue-screen effects that used to crop up during old flying-carpet movies. Many scenes appear unforgivingly bright. Even then, it’s not a deal-breaker, though there’s always the risk that audiences will wonder why these epic battles for the soul of Middle Earth are lit like The Only Way is Essex.

Watched together, Jackson’s six Tolkien films may eventually reveal poignant continuity glitches: McKellen will surely age in reverse, while special effects and make-up will be more sophisticated in the pictures that figure earliest in the narrative. The seedy, pasty-faced look is very in among this year’s ghouls and grotesques: a trio of trolls resemble lardy likenesses of Steven Berkoff, while Barry Humphries is in Les Patterson mode as the Goblin King, whose distinguishing feature is a floppy scrotal chin.

As usual, the CGI scene-stealing honours go to Gollum (Andy Serkis): the shoulder blades saw beneath his unkissed skin, the moist eyes strain imploringly at the limits of their sockets. Gollum has achieved the status of Special Guest Star now – I could feel the audience on tenterhooks when he scampered into view – but An Unexpected Journey is not merely the victory lap for Jackson that it could have been. He may be back in the familiar surroundings of Middle Earth but as a film-maker he’s darting off in new directions. I’m happy to follow.

Martin Freeman as the titular Hobbit.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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Time for put-upon Sicily to put out its wines

The high-altitude vineyards of Italy’s largest island produce nectar for the gods, Greek or Roman.

It was Diodorus of Sicily, a Greek historian in the 1st century BC, who wrote of the Gauls’ passionate attachment to wine that they “partake of this drink without moderation . . . and when drunk fall into a stupor or a state of madness”. There was, as yet, virtually no wine made in what would become France, and Italian merchants were making a fortune: in exchange for a jar of wine they received a slave, thus “exchanging the cupbearer for the cup”.

An irritated Gaul – and they were not people to irritate – might have responded that the Sicilians were no slouches on the drinking front, either. They had been making wine for several centuries by the time Diodorus was born, and although some of their grapes had been transplanted successfully to the mainland, a fair bit of what they produced was being consumed by the producers. And who, when drunk, does not approach either catatonia or insanity?

Perhaps the accusations rankle because the Gauls, with their lack of home-grown grapes, their thirst and consequent misbehaviour, were clearly the Brits of the Roman era. Plus ça change, as their descendants might say, although, given that France now has far healthier attitudes to wine than we do, perhaps there’s hope for us yet: just keep expanding the English vineyards, wait a couple of thousand years and – voilà!

Arguably the Sicilians have as many reasons to flee consciousness as we do. Their island may be breath-catchingly beautiful, from the Mediterranean beaches to the slopes of Mount Etna, past Greek temples, Roman ruins and Baroque churches, and their weather so wonderfully warm and dry that they can grow almost anything (a facility that led in the 20th century to a flood of boring wine that almost drowned the island’s vinous reputation for good). But Italy’s slender length is characterised by economic top-heaviness: the north is rich and industrialised, the south poor and rural, and Sicily is as far south as you can get.

The antique feel that tourists find so charming – Tinkers! Fishmongers! Absolutely nothing open between noon and 4pm! – is an indication of a region whose glories lie in the distant past, 2,500 years ago, when Syracuse was a powerful city state at least as large as Athens, praised by Cicero as “the greatest of the Greek cities, and the most beautiful of all”.

Such vicissitudes will make you flexible. Sicily has the adaptability of an island that has seen volcanic eruptions and armed invasions, has been powerful and poor, and been diddled out of its patrimony by cousins from the north as well as criminal-minded brothers from the village next door. Its range of indigenous grapes reflects this. There is spicy, rich Nero d’Avola; light, cherryish Frappato; and Nerello Mascalese, perhaps the most adaptable of all. The best whites are almondy Grillo and the tart, lemonish Carricante, grown on volcanic Etna’s high slopes.

As befits a place so frequently invaded, there are international grapes, too: one of the island’s finest wines, Tasca d’Almerita’s Contea di Sclafani Rosso del Conte, blends Nero d’Avola with Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. Some top producers, such as Feudo Montoni, stick to indigenous grapes; the formidable Planeta tries practically everything.

The best winemakers have a wilful individuality that those befuddled Gauls would surely have recognised. In the case of COS, a fine triumvirate based in the south of the island, this mental agility has inspired Pithos, wine aged in the ancient clay jars called amphorae. Maybe this is the past catching up with Sicily – or, given the new trendiness of amphorae, just Sicily catching up. Does it matter? The wines are excellent, and entirely distinctive. Surely it is time for Sicily, or at least its finest products, to do a little invading of their own.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror