The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (PG) *****
The great unfilmable book of the 20th century finally makes it to the screen at least, a third of it and the adaptation makes for the first truly epic movie of the new millennium.
There were those who pointed and laughed when New Zealander Peter Jackson pledged to turn JRR Tolkien's mammoth Middle-Earth saga into not one but three films. Two are still to be unveiled but the first, The Fellowship of the Ring, sets up the story with great style and verve, benefiting enormously from a consummate ensemble cast and possibly the best use of special effects ever.
The Lord of the Rings is set to dwarf the Star Wars franchise. Here there is no tinkering by its author, changing established themes and characterisations to plug holes in the plot. Instead, Jackson, a dedicated Tolkien aficionado, has sought to use film as a medium to explore the novel, not the other way around. The result is a motion picture that is 90 per cent successful.
It was once said that the world is divided into those who have read Lord of the Rings and those who have yet to. For those in the latter category I will attempt to give a boiled down synopsis of the plot. A young hobbit, Frodo Baggins, is entrusted with an ancient ring that has dread, evil powers. Lost for centuries, it was found by Frodo's cousin, Bilbo, who knew something of its history and magic. Bilbo's friend, the wizard Gandalf the Grey, begs him to destroy it to prevent it falling into the hands of Sauron, the dark lord of Mordor, who would use its power to enslave the land.
Bilbo, already partly corrupted by the ring's influence, passes it to Frodo. He, along with a fellowship of hobbits, men, an elf, a dwarf and Gandalf, sets off on a quest to return the ring to the place it was forged the Crack of Doom. It is a journey fraught with peril, and not all of them will survive
From the outset Jackson's film boasts the trappings of classic fantasy. Shot on location in New Zealand, the last great, unspoiled paradise, lush, verdant valleys and green meadows provide the backdrop for the settlement of Hobbiton as well as the route the Fellowship must take as it journeys to its destination.
Special effects and computer-generated images are used to create the volcanic eruptions and hellish mines of Mordor, as well as the scurrying, scrambling armies of devilish Orcs as they limber up for battle.
The production design rivals anything seen in past epics, with perhaps the elf kingdom of Rivendell all towering peaks and plunging waterfalls coming off best.
Then there is the cast a high calibre ensemble of tried and trusted film actors that includes Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Elijah Wood as Frodo, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, Sean Bean as Boromir and Christopher Lee as Saruman. The Lord of the Rings features no stars in that there is no room for grandstanding within the tightly knit ensemble. Instead everyone provides individual support to bolster the spectacular feel of the story.
And what a story. While the action has been condensed, some characters excised and others combined, Tolkien's tale has, in the main, been treated with reverence by Jackson and his team. Characterisation is strong despite the pressures of managing a multitudinous cast, and the story is fresh, exciting, passionate and, at times, edgy and scary. The film has received a PG certificate from the UK censor but certain scenes will frighten young children.
Of the actors, Mortensen (quiet and deep as Aragorn) and Lee (wonderfully mad-eyed as a wizard blinded by evil) come off best, though Hollywood brat Elijah Wood proves himself to be a far greater actor than anyone ever realised, appearing in almost every scene and essaying the central role of Frodo with ease.
While the film occasionally slips too deeply into portentousness and cod mysticism (a sequence involving Cate Blanchett being the best example) it is redeemed at every turn by the quality of the acting universally excellent and the sheer scale of the phenomenal battle sequences.
Throw in giant aquatic beasts, murderous cave trolls, fire demons and the dark, undead ringwraiths and this has something to scare the pants off everyone.
Forget Harry Potter, or even Star Wars; this is what myth, magic, witchcraft and wizardry are all about. A shoo-in for a brace of Oscars next year, for cinematography, production design, screenplay (by Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens), sound, editing and director, The Lord of the Rings is the real McCoy.
See it and savour it. Three hours will pass in a flash.
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