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The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)
Director: Peter Jackson
review by Patrick Hudson
With Star Wars and Star Trek, The Lord Of The Rings lies more or less at the centre of popular and SF and fantasy. Babylon 5, Conan, Hercules, Farscape, movie franchises like Indiana Jones and Alien, not to mention the reams of indistinguishable SF and fantasy novels that line the shelves of the bookshops, all orbit around these definitive works.
Each one somehow typifies its media - books, television and movies - and up to now it was as if there were an unspoken agreement not to step onto each others patch: 'Okay, 'Trek and 'Wars, you produce crap novels; Wars, you get the Star Wars Christmas Special and Droidz but nothing more; Trek, your movies must suck; 'Rings, you've got the books and games, but you're un-filmable, so what are you going to do?' Now, Peter Jackson has upset the apple cart by meeting Star Wars on its own ground and raising the stakes enormously. I don't care much for the book, but I am a big fan of Peter Jackson and did wonder what the maker of Braindead, Bad Taste, The Frighteners and Meet The Feebles would make of J.R.R. Tolkien's straight laced, melodramatic novel.
The result is a happy surprise. What we get is a rollicking adventure in the Star Wars mould, with better acting; a better script and a commitment to its source material that makes both Star Wars and Star Trek look decidedly half-hearted. It is exciting, absorbing, magical, scary and heart warming; the dialogue is rich and natural; the effects are mind-boggling; and the music is, well... we'll get to the music.
The film opens with a brief summary of the history of the ring, beginning with a mighty battle between Evil (Sauron and his orcs) and the forces of Good (a bunch of guys and some elves): hundreds of orcs, elves and guys in armour, with big swords and bows, arms and legs being lopped off and Sauron as a 20-foot demon smashing dozens of men aside with every swing. After this barnstorming opening, the scene shifts to the Shire and the story begins at the birthday party of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who has something of a surprise for his guests and an unwanted present for his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), and ends when the fellowship of the ring is split up by the attack of the Uruk Hai.
The introduction, of course, is not in the novel but is revealed later on in the story, and this is not the film's only departure from the original. There are no songs (thank god!), no long recitations of history or verbose monologues. Characters have had their parts broadened, such as Arwen (Liv Tyler) who is attributed a much larger role, or cut completely, such as the irritating wise fool Tom Bombadil. Jackson and his colleagues have worked very hard to find the story that Tolkien buried under all that incidental detail, leaving a tense chase story filled with magic and danger. One could argue that Middle Earth is all about the details (its blessing and its plague), but the filmmakers have emphasised the cinematic elements, keeping just enough detail to keep the plot moving.
Jackson obviously made the right decision, but there are places where the meat is cut a bit thin. The sense of time is all screwed up: the period between Bilbo's birthday and Frodo leaving the Shire doesn't seem right - it seems like the next day when it should be years and years, and many of the long journeys from the book seem to happen almost instantly. The sojourn in Lorien seems over very quickly, and I seem to remember much more happening. What we get is pretty good, but there is certainly footage on the cutting room floor here as the company leave Lorien with green leaf broaches, but we never see them handed out.
In other places, Jackson has skimped on characterisation. Boromir doesn't get much to do before a spectacular heroic death (which happens off stage in the book), and Gimli is hardly on screen at all. I guess he'll get his chance in the next two films, but I seem to remember him having more to do.
Of course, the movie looks great. Every shot is packed to the corners with little details and intricate incidental props. The design of the buildings (particularly the Shire and Moria), costumes (the tweedy Hobbits), weapons, props and bits and pieces like pipes, plates and food, all have a convincing mix of historical practicality and fantastical whimsy, creating a look for Middle Earth that is at once familiar and exotic. There is something coherent and sensible in the design that glues the whole film together, helping to sustain the complete illusion of another world. The differing size of the characters - principally the Hobbits compared to everybody else, even the dwarf - is brilliantly done, and I didn't notice any slip-ups in the scale, despite actively watching for them.
There is also a great deal more magic here than I remember from the book - Gandalf and Saruman's magical duel, monsters like the cave troll and the Balrog, Gandalf's escape from Saruman's tower, the sweeping shots over the orc armies and into Saruman's abyssal orc factory, the elven towns of Rivendell and Lorien, and a hundred other incidental moments that make you believe that there is magic in the very air of Middle Earth. The most convincing magic in the film is the malign power of the ring itself. Jackson shows its evil influence working on everyone who comes near it. On the soundtrack, the ring whispers people's names, it slips out of Frodo's pocket and onto his finger by its own volition, and its gold has an evil sheen, forever reflecting the light of flames and Sauron always seems nearby.
The acting is good, with fine performances from Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Ian Holm as Bilbo, Vigo Mortensen as Aragorn and Liv Tyler as Arwen. Cate Blanchett is wonderfully eerie as Galadriel, and the Elves generally have an otherworldly distraction. The standout performance is that of Elijah Wood as Frodo, whose girly-boy features and huge, anime eyes are precisely as Tolkien described, again assisted by excellent effects-work and unobtrusive hairy feet. His sensitive portrayal evokes the doubts and fear that beset Frodo on his journey, and combines the mix of inner strength and outer weakness the role requires.
There are things that aren't so great about the film. Some of the effects shots are a bit ropey, and the camerawork is, on the whole, too busy. Several of the swooping landscape shots serve only to blur and confuse the picture, while the climactic fight scene of the Fellowship with the Uruk Hai is choppy and over-edited. I can see the effect he's going for - the haze of battle and bloodshed - but it's just too hard to tell who is hitting whom, and several clear stunt set-ups have their payoffs lost in the muddle. The benchmark for movie fighting has been set very high in recent years, and The Lord Of The Rings does not measure up.
The biggest bum note here, though, is the music, which is loud, intrusive and unpleasant. It is a bit like the music in the Cruise and Kidman love pic Far And Away, but even more hideously twee and 'Celtic'. This horrible clichéd din is the films biggest aesthetic error, its ghastliness threatening to drain the film of atmosphere in just about every scene. At times, it drowns out the dialogue and I don't recall a moment of respite from this cacophony, even for a minute. I think a more sparing approach with a less modish style, something with a little more Wagnerian authority, would have been more effective than the constant bombardment we get here. The dreadful Enya song over the end credits is totally wrong, and her over-familiar (and highly limited) voice and style break the spell of the film, even before the lights come up.
Once the dreadful song had been escaped, though, I left the cinema elated. I had been to Middle Earth and lived through terrible times with these characters far more vividly than I ever did with the book. It's great to see a fantasy movie that has the courage of its convictions and resists the urge to descend into camp. Compared to its closest living relative - the Star Wars franchise - The Lord Of The Rings is deep, heartfelt and moving where Star Wars is shallow and half-hearted. I await the next two films in the trilogy with great anticipation.
tZ The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Rings - another review
tZ There And Back Again: the Animated Tolkien, and beyond - retro article
tZ The Lord Of The Rings: Official Movie Guide - book review
tZ Genre Greats - Lord Of The Wingnuts: Peter Jackson - filmmaker profile
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