Film review: `Like an Anglo-Saxon cousin to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'
Xan Brooks applauds the brave first instalment in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy
Monday December 10, 2001
Director Peter Jackson shot The Lord of the Rings as one mammoth production, spanning some 15 months and 350 locations across his native New Zealand. In years to come this Tolkien adaptation will surely be watched by devotees in one butt-numbing nine-hour sitting. Until then it's being rationed out every Christmas between now and 2003. As a result, this cliffhanger comes timed to a lengthy annual calendar. Pre-teens who whimper at the tale's scary moments now will be hulking, blasé adolescents by the time it hits its grand finale.
Rather than a stand-alone holiday blockbuster, The Fellowship of the Ring offers an epic act one. Jackson lays the groundwork with an introductory crash-course to Middle-earth and then sets humble hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) on the first steps of his quest to destroy an evil trinket (the "One Ring to rule them all"). Along the way he acquires an eight-strong band of helpmates. Some of these (Ian McKellen's bristling wizard, Viggo Mortensen's royal-in-exile) emerge as properly rounded, convincing protagonists. Others - the dwarf and the elf - are left as contours; on hand to grumble about the weather or fire off the occasional arrow. Presumably they'll be given more to do as the story progresses.
But then Jackson has given himself a mountain to climb in tackling Tolkien's obsessively multi-layered fantasy (intricate back-stories, made-up languages and all). On the whole he copes beautifully. The Fellowship of the Ring honours the text without being enslaved by it. The explanatory dialogue may creak on occasion, but the action scenes have a snap and pace that suggests a film-maker not scared to bring his own touch to the material. Physically, too, the film is a triumph: an art-department's dream during its lovely interior sequences and a potent advert for the New Zealand tourist board when it heads into the great outdoors.
It remains to be seen, of course, how the public will cope with an ongoing Lord of the Rings franchise. One could argue that Tolkien's yarn has fallen into disrepute since its 50s heyday (the preserve of too many hippies and heavy-metal album covers). Certainly Jackson's serious, high-minded approach looks defiantly out-of-fashion; worlds away from kid-friendly Harry Potter (the season's other big fantasy film about wizards).
Instead, The Fellowship of the Ring boasts some more unlikely influences. At times, Jackson's film could almost pass for the Anglo-Saxon cousin of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; lacking the dark, liquid exoticism of Ang Lee's Chinese-language epic, but compensating with old-school blood-and-thunder and a rash of fairytale monsters.
Most ambitiously, this rousing adventure closes with an ending that's closer in spirit to an art-house film than a popcorn holiday romp. By the final credits, the fellowship has been mobbed by enemies, plagued by self-doubt and effectively scattered to the four winds. Its downbeat send-off leaves the punters dangling. Will the fellowship perish or will it prevail? The next instalment is still twelve months away.
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