A Ring to Rule the Screen
December 10, 2001
Peter Jacksons fierce, imaginative movie takes high-flying risks and inspires with its power and scale
By David Ansen
First, let me tell you where Im coming from. Before I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I didnt know the difference between an orc and an elf, or what Middle-earth was in the middle of. This review is coming to you from a Tolkien-free zone. I went in to Peter Jacksons moviethe first of a trilogywith no preconceptions. I came out, three hours later, sorry Id have to wait a year to see what happens next in Frodo Bagginss battle against the Dark Lord, Sauron, and thinking a trip to the bookstore to pick up The Two Towers might be in order.
THE MOVIE WORKS. It has real passion, real emotion, real terror, and a tactile sense of evil that is missing in that other current movie dealing with wizards, wonders and wickedness. Jacksons fierce, headlong movie takes high-flying risks: it wears its earnestness, and its heart, on its muddy, blood-streaked sleeve. The actors look deep into each others eyes and swear oaths in quasi-Shakespearean language that could, were it not for the utter conviction with which it is played, topple over into the ludicrous.
After a dark and stormy prologue that explains the history of the ring, we meet our hero, Frodo (Elijah Wood), and his mentor, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), in bucolic Hobbiton. This first half hour is shaky: you might feel youve been dragged to a Renaissance Faire where diminutive hobbits cavort with less than contagious jollity. One-hundred-eleven-year-old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), the current possessor of Saurons ring, passes it on to Frodo and unknowingly puts the boys life in danger.
Tolkiens mythic tale is both very simple and very intricate: in order to save the world from evil, Frodo must return the ring to the fires of Mount Doom where it was forgedfor only there can it be destroyed. To accomplish this, he must form a coalition among the races of Middle-earthelves, dwarfs, hobbits, wizards and humansto battle the armies of the Dark Lord. (Is there an echo here of our current world? If you hear it, it lends this war movie an extra urgency.) With his multispecies band of nine brothersthe FellowshipFrodo sets out to the land of Mordor.
Jacksons imagination quickens at the scent of evil, as anyone who has seen his lurid horror-comedy Dead Alive or Heavenly Creatures knows. Fellowship takes hold as soon as the spectral Black Riders appear, hot in pursuit of Frodo and his three hobbit pals. Soon, there are festering-faced orcs, brutal urik hai warriors and a deadly cave troll in the mines of Moria. Jacksons camera flies like a hawk, swooping and plunging into breathtaking scenes of blood and destruction.
For the films design, Jackson turned to Tolkien book illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe. The depiction of the landscapes, architecture and creatures of evil is stunning. But when it comes to the depiction of the good, the movie lapses into art nouveau kitsch. Cate Blanchetts appearance as a golden-locked elven queen is like pre-Raphaelite calendar art. The elven city of Rivendell runs to Ye Olde Antique Shoppe. Jackson isnt the first artist to be more inspired by darkness than light.
With his preternaturally wide eyes, his strong neck and his dirt-caked fingernails, Woods makes an ideal hobbit hero, at once ethereal, determined and funky. Jackson keeps his movie rooted in the earthyou can almost smell the damp forests. Two of the most passionate performances come from Viggo Mortensen as the courageous Aragorn and Sean Bean as the conflicted warrior Boromir. McKellen is a playfully magisterial Gandalf, and he is pitted against no less a foe than Christopher Lee as wizard turned bad Saruman.
This is a violent movietoo violent for little onesand there are moments more Matrix than medieval. Yet it transcends cheap thrills; we root for the survival of our heroes with a depth of feeling that may come as a surprise. The movie keeps drawing you in deeper. Unlike so many overcooked action movies these days, Fellowship doesnt entertain you into a stupor. It leaves you with your wits intact, hungry for more.
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