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Playing Bilbo Baggins, Martin Freeman brings an endearing touch to the first part of Peter Jackson’s classic new Tolkien trilogy.
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 main movie, The Hobbit, started life in a not dissimilar manner. 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 come back to his old hobbits, and in collaboration with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, alongside Guillermo del Toro, has turned the originally modest The Hobbit into a full-scale trilogy of its own.
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 finds him in joining a gang of dwarves as the team’s “burglar” on a mission to regain their old 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 considers the past he’s replaced by his relatively pacifist younger self, to which part Martin Freeman brings the same wonderful, commonsensical, very English qualities that informed his brilliant Dr. Watson on TV.
His first task is given by the bald, bearded, beaky-nosed, unkempt dwarves, six pairs of them with rhyming names and all restlessly brawling, eating and singing. They evoke 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 charming, tragedy-tinged Thorin Oakenshield (played by Richard Armitage). These knockabout sequences go on far too long, but ultimately the quest starts and the dwarves, Gandalf and an originally reluctant Bilbo embark on their epic adventure to the Lonely Mountain, facing orcs, trolls, elves and goblins along the way and encountering endless perils.
There are nostalgias of the Old and New Testament, of similar adventures from Homer’s Odyssey via Morte d’Arthur to Gulliver’s Travels, and there are all the important 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).
It’s an intriguing story, easy to follow and missing both the solemnity and the portentous symbolism of The Lord of the Rings. You needn’t be a Tolkien devotee who knows their orcs from their elvish to enjoy the film, and it’s generally less frustrating than the book, with none of the archness Tolkien adopts when addressing children. Luckily, there’s also a lack of knowing references to other films and TV shows, and there isn’t an American accent to be heard. The dwarves have many British regional brogues, mostly Celtic; the trolls speak comic cockney; the elves, loosely played by Australian actors, stick to standard English.
The mountainous land, increasingly dark and threatening as the story progresses, at times resembles paintings by John Martin and Caspar David Friedrich, and is gorgeously filmed by Jackson’s regular cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie, who has that sensation for view 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 differentiates between “high mimetic” and “low mimetic” figures, for example, heroes who are mythically and socially superior to normal people or at the same human level as the rest of us. Gandalf, who teaches Bilbo what heroism is, and Thorin, who shows the vital qualities in his actions, are high mimetic figures, while Bilbo is low mimetic.
Bilbo can become a hero and then return to his usual world, as indeed is hinted at the early scenes of The Hobbit. What we see in Martin Freeman’s touching and endearing performance is Bilbo doing just the same. I loved the movie and its measured pace and, except when I found myself looking over the top of my glasses, was definitely unaware of the 3D.