LOTR Review - The Times

Off to see the wizards


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Hobbit forming

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is the first part of a trilogy. That means it ends with a “To be continued” feel, a bit like those films which used to be cut in the middle by News at Ten. Only this time they’re separated by a year at a time. Clever, learned (OK, I’ll come right out and say it, nerdish) people applaud this move. It means that they will get further instalments in 2002 and 2003 (there’s nothing a nerd enjoys more than being left dangling) and, more importantly, the film-makers didn’t have to splice out anything important just to squeeze this epic yarn into a few hours.

So it is that you get Gandalf the wizard, played by Ian McKellen, explaining the origins of the ring slowly, grandly, beautifully, making sure we understand the story’s central message (that power corrupts) and why that is a Bad Thing. He doesn’t look at his watch, gibber at Frodo Baggins: “Dodgy ring, must destroy, save world — go, hobbit, go!”, and then have the action switch to a scrap between the fellowship and the orcs on a mountain side, followed by the words, The End. There’s no car chase to Mount Doom, just to save a bit of time. And, of course, for this we must all be eternally grateful.

No one wants an overly condensed Lord of the Rings — that would be a heresy, a bit like trying to cut the birth scene from our own lives. That said, three three-hour segments over as many years! — whatever happened to Instant Gratification? I’m not the most patient of women — show me a cliffhanger and I’m liable to stamp on the knuckles of the plot that’s hanging there, screaming: “Give me all the information now!”

Consequently, the way The Lord of the Rings has been arranged left this critic with a slightly cheated, episodic feel. Even, astonishingly for such a major movie event, a television feel. As if one has been watching some big expensive episode of a long-running soap opera — Middle-earth EastEnders anybody?

Aside from all this carping, is the first segment of the Rings trilogy a good movie, does it entertain, move and invigorate? The answer has to be yes, if you don’t mind the fact that the characters dress in horrible medieval-lite hessian-and-hemp fashions (Calvin Unclean? Yves St Abhorrent?), and talk like a Clannad B-side. On occasions such as these, and with Enya trilling away over her lutes on the soundtrack, you really can feel like you’ve died and gone to Stonehenge.

There is also the small matter of female input — which is just that, small, mainly confined to Liv Tyler (elf princess Arwen) and Cate Blanchett (elf queen Galadriel) wafting about in droopy dresses with trumpet sleeves, like some under-attended Stevie Nicks convention. I suppose we have to blame Tolkien for the fact that their parts are so minuscule that they come across as side-lined fairy groupies. The Lord of the Rings is, always has been, a guy thing, a story which splashes about in themes of masculinity as subtly as a teenage Lothario splashes on his Brut.

A good thing then that the story is so brilliantly held and told at such a cracking pace. Usually odysseys in a fantasy land are doomed to bore, the scary beings they encounter bound to provoke sniggers and yawns.

However, here there is such a subtle moral element that you do end up caring if the protagonists make it through the sinister dwarf mine, if Frodo manages to sling on his invisible cloak quickly enough to thwart his enemies, and, crucially, sometimes his friends, and if it all could end happily when there’s a bunch of dodgy wizards and a character called the Dark Lord of Mordor (who makes Darth Vader resemble a pussycat with a toothache) to contend with.

Tolkien was said to have based the battle scenes on his own experiences in the trenches of the First World War. That sadness, that rage at the waste and cruelty, is perfectly encapsulated too.

The Lord of the Rings is a dark and complex work, considering the PG certificate (but there seem to be a lot of “hard” ten-year-olds around these days). Moreover there isn’t a dud performance to be had. Blanchett and Tyler might not have much to do, but they do it elegantly, with enough fairy dust to keep things magical.

McKellen and Christopher Lee (as bad-egg wizard Saruman) are magnificent. For my money, Lee gets the best moment in the whole film — the bit where he watches Gandalf escape in the talons of a giant hawk, and intones: “And so-ooo, you choose death.” (Easily as fab, camp and quotable as Joaquin Phoenix’s “You vex me” line in Gladiator.) Elsewhere, the human contingent of the fellowship, Sean Bean and Viggo Mortensen as Boromir and Aragorn, are beautiful examples of old-fashioned male morality, where valour and loyalty count for everything in the mud and blood of the battlefield.

Above all, Ian Holm and Elijah Wood are excellent as Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Hairy-footed, dwarfish hobbits they might be, but it is through their innocent, well-meaning eyes that we get the truest glimpse of the ring’s evil. The bit where Bilbo wrestles with himself to give up the ring has an almost Othello-like intensity, as do the final scenes between Bean and Mortensen. These are the really special moments in Lord of the Rings.

The rest — the breathtaking battles, digitally jiggled giant trolls, dwarf mines, the Disneyesque shires of Bag End — proves that Jackson made good use of the available technology and his native New Zealand locations, to help Lord of the Rings to find its feet. However, it’s the performances which give it its heart.

I just wish I felt better about all this “tbc” business. Despite the comparisons with the Star Wars trilogy, each of those stories seemed able to stand on its own. It might have been better if Jackson had released the whole thing as one long, bottom-numbing nine-hour epic. Now that would have sorted your true Middle-earthers from your time-wasters.


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