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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Anti-Semitism is a right-wing problem

The spiritual home of Jewish persecution is not on the left.

We have been conned into believing that anti-Semitism is now a disease of the left. In reality, it is still found mostly in racism’s historic home: on the right. But right-wingers use coded language for it.

In the 1930s, campaigners for a deal with Hitler started by arguing that Britain should not fight the “Jews’ war”. Then they got cleverer. My father was one of them, and Richard Griffiths, an expert on the far right, writes that John Beckett and others used the terms “usury”, “money power”, “alien” and “cosmopolitan” as coded references to Jews.

Today, one code is “north London metropolitan elite”. Danny Cohen, until 2015 the BBC’s director of television, was furiously attacked by newspapers for firing Jeremy Clarkson, and the Times called Cohen a “fixture of the north London metropolitan elite”. The comedian David Baddiel tweeted: “Surprised Times subclause doesn’t add, ‘and y’know: a rootless cosmopolitan of east European stock’.” Dave Cohen, the author of Horrible Histories, tweeted: “Times calls Danny Cohen ‘part of north London metropolitan elite’. We hear what you’re saying, guys.”

The tradition is that of Dornford Yates and Bulldog Drummond, memorably satirised by Alan Bennett in Forty Years On: “. . . that bunch of rootless intellectuals, alien Jews and international pederasts who call themselves the Labour Party”. Clarkson is a perfect opponent for a member of the north London metropolitan elite – a privately educated, British Bulldog Drummond figure for our age.

Another fully paid-up member of the north London metropolitan elite is Ed Miliband, and the attacks on him before the 2015 general election had an unmistakably anti-Semitic edge. Colin Holmes, the author of Anti-Semitism in British Society, points to the Daily Mail’s
attack on Miliband’s academic father, Ralph.

“The word ‘Jew’ doesn’t have to be mentioned,” says Holmes. “All you have to do is make it clear that Ralph Miliband was a refugee from Nazism, and then suggest he has no loyalty to the hand that succoured him. His allegiance was to Moscow. He was one of those rootless cosmopolitans. That theme of Jews owing no allegiance can be found throughout the history of British anti-Semitism. The depiction of Miliband drew strength from the prehistory
of such sentiments linked to Jews, treason and Bolshevism.”

So the Mail article tells us, correctly, that Ralph Miliband was an immigrant Jew who fled Nazi persecution. A couple of paragraphs further on, in case we have forgotten that he wasn’t really English, we read about “the immigrant boy whose first act in Britain was to discard his name, Adolphe, because of its associations with Hitler, and become Ralph”.

It follows Miliband to Cambridge, where he was no doubt taught by several tutors, but only one of them is mentioned: the Jewish Harold Laski, “whom some Tories considered to be a dangerous Marxist revolutionary . . . One is entitled to wonder whether Ralph Miliband’s Marxism was actually fuelled by a giant-sized social chip on his shoulder as he lived in his adoptive country.” What exactly is the purpose of the last seven words of that sentence?

Calling Ed Miliband “weird” was another code, and the argument that we should have had David Miliband, not Ed, because he looked and sounded better was a coded way of saying that he looked and sounded less Jewish.

Yet when, come the 2015 general election, I worked for the Labour candidate in my north London constituency, Finchley and Golders Green (which has a higher proportion of Jewish voters than any other), I found not anger at anti-Semitic attacks on Labour’s leader but a belief that anti-Semitism was Labour’s virus. In vain, I pointed out that we were offering not just the first Jewish prime minister since Disraeli but a Jewish MP in Sarah Sackman.

The constituency was awash with rumours – none of which have ever been substantiated – of Labour canvassers saying anti-Semitic things on the doorstep.

On voting day, I did the early morning shift at my polling station. The first words that my Conservative counterpart said to me were: “I hope you’re ashamed of the way your party has campaigned.” It turned out that the tabloid press had run a story that morning to the effect that Labour canvassers had telephoned Orthodox Jews to tell them that they should not vote for the local Tory MP, Mike Freer, because he was gay.

He is gay, but no evidence has been offered to back up  the story. I have written to Freer (still, alas, my MP), asking for chapter and verse. He has not replied.

Labour isn’t guiltless. Shami Chakrabarti’s widely attacked report last summer made that clear, and the home affairs select committee found disturbing instances. Part of the reason why Labour gets more than its fair share of the odium is the eagerness with which its warring factions use the charge of anti-Semitism to smear their rivals.

But, as no less an authority than Deborah Lipstadt, the pre-eminent historian on Holocaust denial, has said, “It has been so convenient for people to beat up on the left, but you can’t ignore what’s coming from the right.”

My foolish father started out as a left-wing Labour MP in the 1920s. But once he embraced anti-Semitism, he quickly moved to the right in all of his other opinions as well. For then, as now, the spiritual home of anti-Semitism, as with any form of racism, is on the right, not on the left.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge