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The Hunt For Gollum

In a nutshell: a triumph of budget film-making that is often so good, you’d think it was made in Hollywood. But it suffers from patchy plotting.

Much praise has been heaped upon Chris Bouchard’s The Hunt For Gollum and it deserves every word of it. I plan to add some praise of my own, but I’m also going to talk about its failings. Happily, none of these failings were due either to budget or the constraints of a volunteer cast and crew: in other words, the things that are wrong with The Hunt For Gollum were well within the film maker’s power to correct.

Thus, I feel comfortable comparing this fan-made film with the very best that the movie industry has to offer… and reviewing it with the same objectivity, dispassion and expectation. This should be regarded as my first compliment.

But first, a reminder: as usual, please remember that this is a synoptic review and so, if you don’t want any spoilers, go and watch the film now.

The Hunt For Gollum was written and directed by Chris Bouchard. A professional film-maker by day, Bouchard recruited a volunteer cast and crew from within the film industry to create this 40 minute not-for-profit adventure through Tolkien’s Middle Earth, all on a budget of less than £3,000. And the results are pretty damn good. Comparable, in fact, to the best of Hollywood. As such, this is a true rarity in the world of indie low budget fan-made movies, and worth seeing if only for that reason, alone. However, it should be remembered that many of the people working on this project were professionals, so perhaps the result isn’t all that surprising.

The film begins in breathtaking style with the perspective swooping through a majestic, mountainous landscape, mirroring the title sequences of Peter Jackson‘s adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. These stunning visuals are a perfect counterpoint to the soundtrack which is so in keeping with Howard Shore’s original work I struggled at first to tell the difference. The film was, according to the ‘Making of‘ documentary, shot on location in Epping Forest and Snowdonia, but which parts were real Welsh mountains and which were post-production embellishments, I can’t tell you. It all looked good.

The Hunt for Gollum - backdrop
Mountains? Probably genuine, but I’m pretty sure the statue is CGI!

Once we have descended from the mountains we encounter Gandalf (played by Patrick O’Connor) meeting Aragorn (Adrian Webster) in a tavern… and here I must pause to say just how skilfully this atmospheric, claustrophobic and noisy environment is created with the minimum of fuss. It quickly became one of my favourite scenes. Over a pint Gandalf and Aragorn discuss the Enemy and the One Ring. Gandalf reveals his concern over the whereabouts of Gollum. Because Gollum knows Bilbo’s name and where he came from, he therefore knows where the Ring resides. If captured, Gollum could reveal this information to the Enemy. Aragorn quickly volunteers to go in search of Gollum and thus, the course of the film is set.

The Hunt For Gollum is a type of work commonly known as a gap-filler: often a work of fan-fiction, a gap-filler is a narrative that depicts events which the original text has only described. The The Hunt For Gollum is set after The Hobbit but before the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and is based on certain expository scenes from the LOTR novels, plus information from the appendices to the novels. Together, these provide a brief overview of Aragorn’s search for Gollum, which is more or less a textbook Hero’s Quest. Aragorn (or Strider, as he identifies himself in this story) travels through interesting landscapes, meets interesting people (and kills some of them), endures suffering during which he reflects on his life and loves, and eventually achieves his goal.

So, the visuals are good, the production team are professionals, but what about the acting?

I’m pleased to report that it doesn’t let the side down. The team effort that was Gollum deserves a special mention. Patrick O’Connor is a very good Gandalf, and has received high praise from his mainstream counterpart, Ian McKellen. Dan Styles and Joshua Kennedy are brilliant as the only two orcs with proper speaking parts. And Arin Alldridge is instantly likeable as the ranger, Arathir.

Wait a minute! Who is Arathir? We meet him eight minutes into the film. He’s a fellow ranger with important news of Gollum’s movements. Aragorn encounters him in a forest but, not knowing him at first, the two stalk each other in some of the best footage of the film. I was on the edge of my seat during the entire sequence.

Later on we are introduced to Dagbash (Dan Styles) and his companion, the Disgruntled Orc (Joshua Kennedy). These two characters deserve far more recognition than the film affords: their scene is easily one of the highlights of the film. It’s also an excellent example of the costuming and makeup, any failings of which would have been most obvious among the Orcs, but which are in fact very well done.

The Hunt for Gollum - Disgruntled Orc and Dagbash
Low light helps pull off home-made prosthetics, but if I saw this coming the other way on a dark street, I’d still be worried!

But we must naturally focus on the key role: Adrian Webster as Aragorn, whose performance has attracted many favourable comparisons with his Hollywood A-list counterpart, Viggo Mortensen. And in my opinion they are all justified: Webster brings the same sense of stillness and composure that became the hallmark of Mortensen’s interpretation. He is also clearly a good athlete, finding no trouble replicating the physicality that is intrinsic to the character (that’s a technical acting term used by actor types: it means he moves good).

However, Webster is not simply a carbon copy of Mortensen; he brings something to the role in his own right. For a start he makes excellent use of his native Welsh accent to lend authenticity to the role. This can be a fearful choice in a world of sanitised, identical American voices and kudos should go to any actor who dares to step outside this norm. But I was impressed the most by his contemplative moments, and thoroughly convinced by his portrayal of Aragorn’s ‘gift of foresight’, which is noted by Gandalf in the tavern scene.

The Hunt for Gollum - Adrian Webster as Aragorn
Adrian Webster being ‘still’ and ‘far sighted’. Looks a bit like Luke Skywalker! Maybe it’s the hood.

These instances could well have fallen horribly flat: Strider getting all new age, or pretending to be some kind of medieval American Indian. But Webster makes it believable and I never gave it a second thought until writing about it. Job done.

But that’s enough praise, for the moment. Now for a few things that irked, like the mishandling of certain characters.

For example, the all too brief interlude with Arathir. He leaves in the very same scene in which he arrives and we never see him again. Remember that this is a fan-made movie made with fans in mind. In none of Peter Jackson’s LOTR films do we meet Aragorn’s fellow rangers, and they don’t get much page width in the books, either. Now, at last, we have an opportunity to compare and contrast, and to explore the relationship between these elusive and mysterious wanderers… oh, no we don’t. Off he goes. And that’s that.

Then we have Goblock, the chief antagonist and, yes, if you’ve watched the movie and don’t know the name, you are forgiven. There is no good reason why you should. As chief antagonists go he is poorly handled all the way up to his duel with Aragorn, which is his only shining moment.

Goblock (played by Gareth Brough) is the orc chieftain with a deformity that hints at his half-troll heritage. A potentially interesting character, he pales in comparison to Dagbash and the Disgruntled Orc. (This is ironic as D&D’s scene was designed to introduce us to Goblock!) He mentioned more often than he appears, and his almost incoherent dialogue is limited to in a single scene in which he is mostly silent and passive while others converse around him. Only belatedly does he step forward to bark a few monosyllabic orders which I didn’t understand as anything more than grunts. This is an insufficient basis for a menacing bad guy. We learn more about Disgruntled and Dagbash, and grow closer to them in the first ten seconds of their appearance, only to have them killed off in the very same scene!

And then there is the bemusing case of the Mirkwood Elf (played by Max Bracey). He appears twice in what I felt were two very ambiguous, and brief, close-ups. I was initially left feeling confused by his sudden appearances – did I accidentally switch to another video in that instant? What is the significance of this interlude? I didn’t puzzle it out until I watched the film a second time. The Mirkwood Elf isn’t around long enough to be mentioned by name (hence the absence of one) and only has one short line of dialogue. Some might argue that his second appearance is key, coming as he does to rescue Aragorn from a Ring Wraith, except that it doesn’t really feel as if Aragorn needs rescuing at that point. The Elf arrives just as the Wraith is vanquished by Aragorn, bringing into question the entire purpose of this character. He feels very much as if he’s been shoe-horned into the plot, perhaps to fulfill a need that was present in an early draft, but later edited out. I speculate thus because that’s how it feels: as if we’re seeing an error encircled in red ink, but which still made it into the final cut.

Fans of Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations might, at this point, argue in the Elf’s defence by saying that Liv Tyler‘s Arwen was similarly handled in The Fellowship of the Ring. But her character’s intervention at such a late stage of that film’s narrative served to introduce what was to become a key character in the later movies (thanks to Jackson’s conscious choice to expand her role beyond that which she held in the novels). However, here the Elf shows up a couple of times and just as quickly disappears while the film moves swiftly on, none the wiser and none the better for his presence.

And this brings me to my second criticism: patchy plotting.

For all its achievements one does not get the sense that this film is cohesive. Individual scenes are excellent, the acting is always strong, the shot composition is ambitious, yet successful, to the great credit of the film-makers. But the editing and overall plotting lets it down. But if this were a novel, I would guess that the author had written it backwards with several months off in between individual scenes, then used copy-and-paste to rearrange it all into a chronological sequence. The result is that there is no flow. Elves and Orcs drop in, do something, and then are gone. And as we are taken through the two-part climactic fight scene (first against orcs, than the Wring Wraith) it starts to feel more like Aragorn is traversing increasingly difficult levels in a computer game.

This is, perhaps, partly down to the tendency to throw away interesting characters. The combat choreography is worthy of anything in Hollywood, but the idea of Aragorn facing down at least a dozen orcs alone somewhat stretched credibility, particularly when you can catch glimpses of them lining up around the periphery of the battle, waiting to charge in, individually. While Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn chalked up an impressive body count in the Peter Jackson movies, he was rarely fighting alone. A little assistance from his new friend Arathir would have added a welcome dimension to the battle, and boosted the credibility of Aragorn’s heroics.

But let’s finish on a high note.

A particular triumph of the film is Gollum, himself. Using the very best B-movie monster tactics we are skillfully prevented from seeing too much, while simultaneously we are granted just enough to convey the essence of the character, his movements, and his physical appearance which, naturally, mimicks that seen in the Peter Jackson adaptation. The IMDB Cast & Crew page reveals that there were no fewer than 5 people involved in portraying Gollum both vocally and physically. The voice of Andy Serkis has, since the release of the films, become synonymous with the character. Gareth Brough and Jason Perino’s vocal efforts create an effect so similar that, just as I was fooled by the landscapes and soundtrack, so I began to wonder if Serkis himself was moonlighting in this fan-made film. Special credit must, however, go to Fransesco San Juan who had the unenviable (and no doubt exhausting) role of ‘Gollum in the sack’.

If you do watch it, make sure you also check out ‘The Making Off‘ documentary which is equal parts fascinating and inspiring, but whose content is beyond the scope of this review. (Arathir fell off his horse!)

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