The Lord of the Rings: The fellowship of the ring (PG)
The greatest fairy story ever told
14 December 2001
To tell the truth, I never got the hobbit habit, though it certainly didn't stop me passing snide comment on Tolkien fans. While never having read a word of the man, I felt qualified to dismiss his oeuvre as a prose version of prog rock. (What a delightful youth I must have been). So the news that a Lord of the Rings trilogy was being filmed had about as much an effect on me as hearing that, say, Emerson, Lake and Palmer were about to reform the difference being, the ELP reunion concert has not been a looming professional obligation for the last six months.
And, despite intending to mug up on my Elvish, I settled in front of the first LOTR instalment, The Fellowship of the Ring, in absolute ignorance of this fantasy world. Did I know what a hobbit was? I did not. Could I direct you to Middle-earth? Not with a map and compass. "I feel it in the water, I smell it in the air," intones the narrator over a prologue concerning the history of "the ring", though all I could smell (and hear) was the deep vat of popcorn being crunched two seats along. Things become a little clearer as the story ushers us into the pastoral calm of the Shire, at a retirement party for Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), senior hobbit (111 years old) and present curator of the ring, which apparently confers a dreadful power on anyone who wears it. This is why the original owner, prince of darkness Sauron, is now doing his damnedest to reclaim it.
Bilbo, on the advice of his old friend Gandalf (Ian McKellen), now entrusts the ring to his nephew Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), though at this point we can't know what a poisoned chalice the young man is being handed. "Is it safe?" Gandalf asks Frodo, as well he might, for if the evil Sauron is to be outwitted the ring must be taken to the land of Mordor and destroyed in the volcanic fires of Mount Doom. A nine-strong coalition of elves, dwarves, hobbits and humans the Fellowship sets out to help Frodo do the job. Here, in a nutshell, is the plot, and there, ordinarily, I would make my excuses and scarper. Yet what sounds like fantastical nonsense on the page has undergone a strange, indeed wizardly transformation up on screen. Director Peter Jackson renders Frodo's mission to Mordor vivid with danger, excitement and a curious sense of dread, which even a long running time (just short of three hours) never dissipates. To express it in technical terms, the thing works.
What Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Bowyer, do especially well is to sustain a headlong momentum. The episodic nature of the material could easily become draggy, yet Jackson seems to know precisely how long he needs to stay in a scene before cutting and moving on. Some of the perils besetting Frodo and his companions are straight from the stuff of nightmares, like the "ringwraiths", black-caped and mounted on monstrous horses, or the Orcs, spear-carrying grotesques that swarm over their subterranean den with horrifying agility. True, not all of the Fellowship's foes can work up quite the same scares I wish they hadn't bothered with the ogre, whose computer-animated movement is weightless and unco-ordinated. And the dragon that stalks the Mines of Moria suffers too from CGI stiffness; if you can see the joins, the spell is broken.
Still, a few local difficulties will not detract from the picture's bold and invigorating accomplishments. Its sense of scale is hugely impressive (Jackson's native New Zealand provides key scenery) while Andrew Lesnie's photography and Grant Major's production design nicely vary the play between light and dark. Jackson also scores bull's-eyes in the multi-generational casting, with Ian McKellen infusing his beardy gravitas with a pinch of mischief and, opposite him, Christopher Lee returns from the Undead to do a suavely evil turn as wizard-gone-to-the-bad Saruman. More importantly, the band of brothers who accompany Frodo have the right mixture of physical variety and moral insecurity to keep an audience hooked; Viggo Mortensen's noble-souled Aragorn matches up against Sean Bean's conflicted Boromir, while pretty-boy archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is a good pairing with Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), a truculent dwarf with a beard that seems to have been woven from broadloom.
As Frodo, Elijah Wood carries himself commendably, and his slightly off-centre looks underscore both his isolation and the sense of a mission reluctantly undertaken. Am I alone in picking up the faintest biblical echoes in this portrait of a "chosen one" who must sacrifice himself for the sake of the world? It appears to chime with other images in the film, such as Cate Blanchett's as Elf queen Galadriel, bathed in a celestial light that's reminiscent of the Virgin Mary appearing to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette. Or the late image of a warrior slain by multiple arrows to the chest, like the martyred Saint Sebastian. Or even the crinkle-haired hobbits (Dominic Monaghan, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd) who follow Frodo with the tireless devotion of apostles. Fanciful parallels, perhaps, but there does seem rather more to this quest-narrative than meets the eye. For now, Jackson and his team have engineered a quite thrilling spectacle, densely textured, handsomely played and surprisingly light on its feet. I'd rather keep this between us, but the sword-and-sorcery business has just acquired a new fan.
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