Spellbound by Jackson and Gandalf
By Nigel Andrews
Published: December 13 2001 17:29GMT
At university I fought with the strength of 10 men. Every day dozens of friends - so called - attempted to scale my battlements and conquer my integrity as a literature student. "You must read Tolkien," they cried as I beat them away. "Be a friend to Frodo!" they shouted as I poured boiling oil over them. "Do not disregard the wisdom of Gandalf," exclaimed others, whom I pushed away with a stick.
I was never vanquished. I refused to read all those tomes about elves, hobbits and creatures that whinged from dawn to dusk saying, "Oh dear, I've lost my ring." We get enough of that from Wagner, whom Tolkien evidently raided shamelessly. Finally though - price of my profession - I must go along to the movie: three hours of elves, hobbits and Sir Ian McKellen saying "Oh dear, we've lost the ring."
After five minutes, however, I was worried that I was enjoying it. After 10, I was worried that I was enjoying it more. After 20 minutes I realised that Peter Jackson's film of the unfilmable is as close to great filmmaking as an epic-sized pop-mythological kiddyflick can get.
Jackson is the New Zealand director whom many critics used to rubbish (but not, check records, the FT) for making haywire horror films like Braindead, before he went quasi-mainstream with the Kate Winslet- introducing tale of murderous schoolfriends Heavenly Creatures. Destiny's choice of Jackson to take on Tolkien is inspired. He answers both of two needs. On the one hand he can tell a convoluted story swiftly, cleanly, accessibly: we get the whole of The Hobbit, Tolkien's novel-length prologue to his trilogy, thrown into a few minutes of voiceover early on. On the other hand - though I suspect he has six other hands - Jackson can storm the Heavens and plumb the deepest, most blazing abysses with a special-effects imagination that it simply stunning.
This film makes Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone seem like Jackanory on a low budget. I gasped first at an early battle landscape so vast, so painterly, so unearthly that it belongs in an art exhibition devoted to "Gothic delirium after Gustave Dore". The source of my next gasp was more kinetic: a flyover view of the black tower on which Frodo's friendly wizard is waking from a swoon, a shot that begins by low-scudding over fiery mineworkings, fantastically populated like a living Hieronymus Bosch, before soaring with digitised seamlessness into a giant close-up of Sir Ian Mc- Gandalf, then plummeting sheer down his night-black pinnacle into the boiling fires of Tolkien's plagiarised Niebelheim.
Add to these spectacles the following: thrilling horse chases, the spiked and clanking horror of the Ringwraiths and Orcs, the sudden avalanche on a snowy pass, the beetling bridges over black voids that promise spinning death, and the attack of the Goblins of Muria, humanoid horrors who scuttle not just across the floor but down columns from the vaulted ceiling where they spiderishly roam.
We even gape joyously at the kitsch pastoralism of the Shire and Rivendell. The first is Hovis country, all green downs and doolally sub-Delius warblings, though sumptuously realised with its round Hobbit doors punched into verdant hillsides. The second is an Italianate Shangri-La of filigree-Venetian villas and cloisters, perched half way up a belief-beggaring gorge.
That Jackson can also direct actors is a virtuosity too far. Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins hasn't been this good for years. He transforms his whole body vocabulary to new-create this anxious, Lilliputian old codger who is half the height and a quarter the composure of the other, wizardly Ian. McKellen singsongs deftly through two feet of beard, giving weight, wit and warmth to the man who Merlin-engines Tolkien's plot. As for Frodo-playing Elijah Wood, he has grown from a child star (North, Avalon) into a youth with the features of a William Blake angel. I kept doing double-takes. This firm-browed, almond-eyed lad with the strong cheekbones and slim, symmetried descent of nose and mouth surely has escaped from a Blake painting?
I barely have a complaint. The women make a weaker impression than the men. Liv Tyler does a Camay advertisement in the woods, all soft focus and dreamy skin glow: "you too can have a complexion like mine", especially if you daub a ton of Vaseline on the lens. I didn't understand what Cate Blanchett was doing in another part of the forest, dressed like the Lady of the Lake. And surely I didn't hear her say "Farewell, Frodo Baggins, I give you the light of Air India." (The sound has always been problematic at the Odeon West End).
Frankly, too, the story seems composed almost exclusively of fights, hairsbreadth scapes, more fights, more scapes. And there will be six more hours of this, in two parts, over coming Christmases. Yet Jackson makes it fly. I was going to devote today's extended column inches to a comparative think-piece about Lord of the Rings versus Harry Potter. But there is no comparison. Potter was made by a committee masquerading as a director. Rings is made by a genius masquerading as a normal human being.
Where can Jackson go from here? If anyone wants Citizen Kane remade, here is the man. But he may and should prefer to do his own thing, as he did when we select and shining few urged him on towards greatness through the inspired insanities of Braindead and Meet the Feebles.
Isn't there a moral here, a moral deeper and more radical than anything in Tolkien (or anything that has been piped through to me by devotees)? That it takes a scapegrace to deliver true grace, as it has always taken artistic outlaws to rewrite the laws of art.
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