eye - 12.13.01
One Ring to rule the mall
Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings thunders into theatres
BY JASON ANDERSON
With the proliferation of ever more impressive effects and slick, CGI-enhanced environments, the role of actors in Hollywood action, fantasy and science-fiction movies has rarely seemed more negligible. Yet one reason Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, succeeds so well is that there is such a strong human presence -- even if many of the humans are portraying pointy-eared elves, dwarves and hobbits.
The film boasts an exceptionally strong cast, with Jackson eliciting nuanced performances from Viggo Mortensen (the ranger Aragorn), Sean Bean (the valiant but internally conflicted Boromir) and Sir Ian McKellen (a vulnerable, slightly dotty Gandalf). Rather than being stock heroic figures, the characters occupy various positions on the sliding scale from good to evil and are imbued with the moral ambiguity of, well, actual people. In the largely brain-dead genre of mega-budget, FX-heavy blockbusters, that counts as an innovation.
"Every character in the Fellowship is flawed," says Mortensen, the Danish-American actor best known for roles in The Indian Runner and G.I. Jane. "Every character has moments of indecision or self-doubt and is capable of evil things. There is temptation for all of them."
This temptation to possess the One Ring is nearly irresistible for one member of the Fellowship, and one of Jackson's wisest decisions in this adaptation is to emphasize the struggle of Boromir, who believes this dangerous object can help him save his embattled people. Eventually, he comes under the influence of the ring.
"He's a man who's very brave, very heroic," says Bean, who played far less sympathetic baddies in GoldenEye and Clear and Present Danger. "He's at home in battle -- he can physically cope there, but he can't cope with this thing that's eating away at his soul."
Whereas the finicky business of character development is kept separate from the whiz-bang action in most movies, how the characters behave in The Fellowship of the Ring's battle scenes often reveals the most important things about them. Obviously, a high level of physical prowess was essential, and the actors worked extensively with Bob Anderson, the sword master who once trained Errol Flynn and fought as Darth Vader in the duels in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
"We were doing a lot of weapons training and swordplay," says Bean, "and we all had particular styles in combat. Orlando Bloom has a very elegant style and Viggo has a thrashing, wild style. I suppose mine's a bit in-between. We were able to develop things that were distinct to our cultures or backgrounds."
For Bloom, the young English actor who plays the elf archer and warrior Legolas, it was crucial that his role become ingrained in his "muscle memory." The essence of Legolas "is in his physicality," he says. "I did a lot of training and research -- I even read books on trees, knowing the elves came from trees. I imagined them having an almost similar physical quality, with these strong lower bodies but balletic upper halves."
The physicality of the characters is further enhanced by the detail in the costuming, sets and locations. For Elijah Wood, who makes for an appropriately wide-eyed and nimble Frodo, this allowed him to immerse himself in the role.
"When you have prosthetic feet and ears and a wig, it definitely changes the way you feel," he says. "And the sets were so realistic. There were so many minute little details -- just walking around Bag End [Frodo's uncle's house], there were maps and things that were beautifully done that you may not even see in the film but added to the reality. Once you're in those environments, you're there. You're the character and you're in this world that has been taken away from fantasy and brought into the reality of your own life."
Equally palpable onscreen is the actors' fatigue at having to endure so many arduous months in production (including three months of nights shooting a rainy battle scene that will appear in next year's installment, The Two Towers). Bloom likens the experience to "some huge wild horse that everyone was trying to grab a rein on and hold on for dear life." Injuries and exhaustion were par for the course -- at one point, Mortensen even had a tooth knocked out. In its anguished tone and visceral action, The Fellowship of the Ring reflects those real-life struggles.
"There were a lot of benefits for the desperation, exhaustion and controlled chaos of it all," says Mortensen. "In the finished product, you can feel a grounded, frayed, gritty quality to the imagery. That's not only because of the care with the costumes and the art department.
"Even if you don't have all the words from the book, this supposedly fantastic world and these characters' emotions feel quite real. It's not some fantasy escapist thing. It's sort of a dark, uneven mirror of our society, with its own prejudices, fears and hatred -- all those things that have to be addressed. The film is not some escape from all the shit that's going on in the world. It's not Harry Potter."
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