Adventures (including sex!) await folks in ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Hyde Park’
It’s an axiom of criticism that you can only review the thing in front of you — a philosophy more complicated than it sounds when it comes to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of a trilogy of films adapting J.R.R. Tolkein’s novel. The version of the film I (and all other local critics) was presented was a high-speed-frame, high-def, 3D version of a movie that most folks will see in a 2D format. It sometimes happens critics screen movies in 3D or IMAX or THX Sound others don’t have access to; it’s just part of the game. Usually, though, you can separate those out from the bona fides of the film itself.
That’s nearly impossible with The Hobbit. The high-def process employed isn’t widely available, and that’s a good thing — in some ways, it’s quite unwatchable. The moody, dark atmospherics of film stock are missing when everything is as ravishingly supersaturated as a videotaped BBC comedy. There’s no texture to the images, no grit. It’s as if the entire film were being projected on a giant silver mirror.
So distracting is the process, divorcing one’s self from it becomes an exercise in will power. It’s not always possible to win.
Even without a format more eyesore than eye-popping, The Hobbit is a disappointing entry into this fantasy universe. Peter Jackson turned Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy into three rousing movies; why does it take another three films to put his slender, less ambitious single volume onto the big screen? The enterprise reeks of overreaching.
It also explains why, at nearly three hours, An Unexpected Journey feels more padded than a drag queen’s brassiere. The assembling of dwarfs heading on a quest to reclaim their conquered city takes at least 45 minutes to get going, during which you’re more likely to nap than coo with wonder.
When the action does begin in earnest, the sequences are well staged, if sometimes pointless. The Hobbit is a family film in the way LOTR was not — all the killings are bloodless (even the swords are pulled from chest cavities sparklingly clean) and the comedy is of the Three Stooges variety — quite literally when Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) encounters trolls who are no scarier than Lindsay Lohan out of makeup.
When, with less than an hour to go, Gollum (Andy Serkis) finally makes his appearance, An Unexpected Journey finally starts to come together. Gollum is a fabulous character, brilliantly rendered by Serkis in a motion-captured performance, that raises the level of the film and even makes you forget about the hi-def. But it’s not long after that the film ends, a la The Empire Strikes Back, with an intentional cliffhanger.
The Hobbit would have worked better as a TV miniseries, if not for prohibitive costs (makeup alone must have been millions — there are more beards here than at a convention of Tom Cruise’s exes). Even Ian McKellen back as Gandolf — plus Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee and Elijah Wood in cameos —adds only a slight level of grandeur and sense of continuity; what they can’t add is purpose.
If the rural folk in The Hobbit go searching for action, so do the Ameristocracy in Hyde Park on Hudson … though the action they seek is of a vastly different nature. Based on more-or-less true events about how King George VIII of England — called Bertie, the stuttering dad of Elizabeth II portrayed onscreen in both The King’s Speech and W/E within the last two years — paid a visit to FDR in the advent to WWII, trying to muster popular support for U.S. intervention against the Nazis. Both sides had a lot at stake; both were so caught up in protocols they nearly tanked it: Bertie (Samuel West) read too much into every gesture; Roosevelt (Bill Murray) couldn’t keep his pants on, romancing his distant cousin Daisy (Laura Linney) under everyone’s nose.
If it weren’t for the historic political overtones, Hyde Park on Hudson would play more or less like a quaint country sex farce — at times, it seems director Roger Michell goes out of his way to echo Bergman’s Smiles on a Summer Night, which itself became the Sondheim musical A Little Night Music — I half expected Eleanor (Olivia Williams) to break into a chorus from “Send in the Clowns.”
Alas, nothing quite so magical happens. All the moonlight romping and bucolic soft focus are nice, but they don’t come together with the politicking; it’s like two movies jockeying for dominance.
There are two areas, however, where the film succeeds. First is in its candor about the marriage of convenience between Eleanor and Franklin. Both servants and guests seem uncomfortably resigned to the fact Franklin has a mistress who is invited to attend events, hidden in plain sights. They also address Eleanor’s presumed homosexuality — a point is made that she lives not with FDR in Hyde Park, but with a household of lesbian furniture makers nearby with whom she has an intimate relationship — with a disarming directness.
The second is what becomes the film’s central scene: A late-night discussion between Bertie and FDR about the nature of governance. Despite making almost no effort to have Murray (or Williams) look like a Roosevelt — a cigarette holder for him, and dowdy clothes and an overbite for her — in this moment Murray demonstrates his acting chops. He’s savvy and human, discussing his polio and the nature of perception in a way that rings true even today. (It also sets up the finale, where an awkward picnic forms the crux of a diplomatic flourish.)
With those other recent Bertie movies, this ground feels overly familiar to trod on again. But by the end, Murray has given us a reason to care, and to see things afresh — both the character he plays and the actor himself.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 14, 2012.