Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Well, here it is. The most eagerly anticipated.. OK, the second most eagerly anticipated film of the year, an adaptation of the most popular. OK, second most popular fantasy story of the 20th century. New Line cinema are probably still scowling into their coffee and complaining about how THE movie event of the decade could somehow have been usurped by a small boy in John Lennon glasses and no nose. But their panic is my gain. So confident are the film makers that (in almost complete disregard of recent movie lore which suggests that the critics should be the last people to see any ‘blockbuster’ film, in case word of the quality of the product should inadvertently reach the consumer!), they have dragged forward the critics screening of this magnum opus in a game attempt to generate some non-Potter excitement. So I’ve seen it – ya boo sucks to you.
Whatdya mean, does it have Quidditch in it? No!
There hardly seems to be any point relating the story, which would be like recounting the story of Moses when reviewing “Prince of Egypt”, but a bit of education for the Potterites might not go amiss. Our hero is Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a small person with hairy feet and only slightly more of a nose than Harry Potter, who inherits what might appear to some to be a really cool present – a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible. Unfortunately, it turns out that this cool present is cursed, and will corrupt and deform any that posses it, while at the same time holding the power to subjugate all the free peoples of the world to whoever has the strength to use it. Because of this, Frodo suffers the twin inconvenience of a) not being able to use it without turning into a evil ghost thing and b) being hunted by bigger evil host things who want to take said hugely powerful talisman back to its original owner, The Dark Lord, so that he can indulge in aforementioned subjugation of the free peoples of the world etc.
Fortunately, Frodo has some good friends and advisors. Foremost is the white-haired wizard (no, not Dumbledore!) named Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellan) who firsts suspects the ring’s true nature. Also on hand is working class pal Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) and rather more posh, but equally silly friends Merry (Dom Monaghan of “Hetty Wainthrop Investigates”!) and Pippin Took (Billy Boyd). After Gandalf advises Frodo to escape with the ring, with the eventual aim of destroying it in the only fire hot enough to melt it (unfortunately in the Dark Lord’s own backyard of Mordor), the four companions set off. Needless to say, it doesn’t go entirely to plan.
But you knew that. So onto the bits you didn’t know.
Peter Jackson has created, if not a classic, then a film which comfortable wins the genre race of fantasy films. This is no Willow. No ridiculously muscled Arnie’s in oiled leather roam around with humorous accents in a Conan stylee. The story makes sense, the characters are believable. And somehow, Jackson has condensed 350 pages of action in just under three hours without butchering the story.
Special mention must go to Sir Ian McKellan, who portrays his Gandalf with a genuine sense of humanity blended with divinity in a far more absorbing way than Willem Dafoe managed in “The Last Temptation of Christ”, and the film develops a poignant listlessness after his (for reasons I won’t explain) departure from the action towards the end. McKellen’s Gandalf is an itinerant conjuror and firework manufacturer who has been waiting for his true purpose on earth to arrive, and to his credit Sir Ian displays fully the dichotomy of the terror and excitement he faces when he realises the true nature of his Hobbit-friend’s trinket. His dismay and loneliness when faced with the treachery of his fellow wizard Saruman (or Saroom’n as they seem to insist on calling him) is also a truly involving moment in the film, which lifts this effort way about previous efforts at this kind of filmmaking.
Not all the characters achieve quite the same perfection. Frodo is better when looking cute and distressed, though to be fair Wood may get a better chance to extend his range in later films. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) looks the part, but unfortunately squeaks his way through the film like a weasel having its tail squashed by a very fat cod-liver-oil salesman. And Sean Bean, so crucial to the effectiveness of the tale as Boromir (B’row’mir?! – what are they playing at?), plays the whole thing like a pantomime villain, leaving his final conversion to the Dark Side as nothing short of boringly predictable.
But the Hobbits are delightful as a group, and Strider (Viggo Mortenson – no, that is an actor, not a character) commands the screen quite convincingly as the mysterious friend of Gandalf who shepherds the halflings to temporary sanctuary at the castle of Rivendell. And it is his personal crisis after the departure of Gandalf that gives the end of the film it’s engaging aimlessness – at least up until the as-surprising-as-cheese ending.
I will gush a little more later, so I will deal with
some of the problems – and they’re not huge.
Firstly, chilling as the Nazgul are, why (given that five of them cannot overcome four hobbits and a man who hasn’t washed his hair for twenty years) are the company so scared of them after they’ve been joined by two powerful Elves (Glorfindel and Arwen) at the Fords of Rivendell? Glorfindel drives them into the water easily enough to drown them – why doesn’t he just drive them away and say “leave us alone”? Strange.
Secondly, how does the love of Aragorn’s life, Arwen Evenstar (a very Elvish Liv Tyler) get from Rivendell to Lothlorien when the same journey nearly kills the Fellowship itself? It reminded me of those Droopy cartoons where the cartoon dog would be buried under fifty feet of rock, only to appear outside the villain’s house with a sardonic expression. I half expected her to drawl “You know what, I’m the love interest”.
My last complaint is the disappointment of the Balrog. It is as if Peter Jackson was so scared on coming down on any one side of the famous fan-debate about Balrog’s appearance that he chickened out altogether! You don’t see the blessed thing! A flaming foot here, a shadowy hand there, a main of fire, nasty looking eyes. To his credit, Jackson disguises his cowardice by presenting it as a problem with scale. The Balrog is seemingly so huge that the cameras cannot fit it all in. But it also conveniently avoids proving or disproving whether or not the demonic creature had wings or not. Shocking.
That said, the Moria sequence is one of the highlights, and its format shocks you when you realise that Tolkien, for all his fame as a fantasist, was almost the father of modern horror cinema! A group of people take a spooky, but apparently safe, journey. Creepy things start happening, culminating in the realisation that the previous occupants of the place they’re in have been horribly slaughtered – and then the same things described by their deceased predecessors in a conveniently discovered diary start happening again. If Tolkien had the guts to kill off more than one of the company, it could have been any of a vast number of horror films of the last fifty years. Jackson exploits this to the full, and the denouement of the sequence is genuinely shocking, for all the shadowy protagonist, and the fact that I knew perfectly well what was about to happen.
And that perhaps is Jackson’s greatest triumph. His core audience has already read the book (perhaps fifty times!), but he keeps them on their toes with little changes. Bilbo (Sir Ian Holm)’s attempt to hide the ring from Gandalf by turning invisible and playing a short but amusing game of hide and seek in Bag End was a nice touch. A black rider eviscerating the likeable Farmer Maggot (John Rye) helps emphasise the danger felt by the halflings in their escape. Arwen herself is allowed to become a visible and understandable figure of devotion for Aragorn, though having her ride to the rescue twice – once at Rivendell, then again on the borders of Lorien after the escape from Moria – is a bit much. And the story of S’room’n, shown here when absent from the book, allows a whole sub-world to be explored, while also allowing Christopher Lee, who plays him, to be deliciously evil.
Less successful are the rendering of Bill Ferny as comic relief, a Nazgul running around in panic when it’s cloak gets set on fire, the Dwarves’ rendering as the Klingons of Middle Earth (“Sauron has no honour!”
– no kidding guys!) and the way the Fellowship escape from Caradhras (did you know Gandalf invented snow-boarding? Now you do).
But these are piffling complaints. The actors, by and large, manage to create fantasy figures as real people. The scenery is, as expected, absolutely stunning, as Jackson manages to merge the real beauty of his homeland with some pretty seamless effects work. The “forced perspective” effect to shrink the Hobbits and Dwarves is also largely successful (though from time to time you can tell one of the hobbits is just kneeling down!), and testimony to the patience with which the crew build two sets of everything (one big, one small) to lend it verisimilitude. The score is beautiful, if unobtrusive, and the script keeps the feeling of Tolkien’s words, even though it often changes them to the modern vernacular (Sam even refers to Arwen as “that Elvish bird” at one point!).
A remarkably risky project appears to have emerged as well as could reasonably expected – and I mean that in an overwhelming positive way! It might not win traditional Academy Awards, but I fully expect my fellow critics to endorse my view of this film as a damn good blast.
Simon Regalman, SFX Online.