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|Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The
by Andrew Howe
Some years ago, Peter Jackson made a promise to the moviegoing public. He told us he was going to film a novel that meant a great deal to a great many people, and gave us his personal assurance that he was the man for the job. He told us he was going to assemble a cast chosen for their suitability for the roles, that he would ensure the script remained faithful to the spirit of the book, and that the creative team would recreate Middle-earth down to the last Hobbit-sized pitcher of ale. We digested his seductive statements with growing anticipation, and more than anything we wanted to *believe*, to hope against hope that, in an industry built on empty promises and the bottom line, a champion would rise to restore our faith in the sanctity of one man’s vision.The reckoning is finally at hand, and Jackson has proved himself a man of his word. The Fellowship of the Ring is a near-masterpiece, a film which makes few concessions to mindless entertainment or cynical marketability. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent fantasy, painted on a canvass both epic and intimate, crafted with an attention to detail that reduces the outside world to an unwelcome memory. It is, in short, the down-payment on a dream many of us have shared for longer than we care to remember, and Jackson has, against the odds, promised even less than he delivered.
"Say goodbye to the real world"
To a student of modern-day heroic fantasy Tolkien’s crowning achievement is an unusual work, for it defies the conventions of the genre (which, in 1954, had yet to be written). Major characters fall by the wayside with barely a paragraph devoted to their demise, epic battles are over before you know it, and Tolkien’s measured wordcraft is at odds with the conversational style adopted by most of today’s bestselling fantasy authors. The key to the novel’s success lies in the attention to detail – Tolkien wasn’t just spinning a tale, he was inventing a world, and few fictional milieus possess the depth of his most enduring creation.
This left Jackson with a delicate balancing act – he couldn’t jettison the weight of history which permeates the novel without losing its spirit, but if he didn’t step up the pace and intensify the action sequences he’d risk losing all but the most devoted fans of the source material. He could have slavishly recreated Tolkien’s narrative to the letter, but instead he chose to capture the atmosphere of Middle-earth, which allowed him to excise the non-essential sections of the novel without turning the film into a highlights reel. The extra space is used to expand the sequences you’re paying to see (Moria, the final battle in the woods), and the result is an adaptation that will satisfy both hardcore fans and viewers who have yet to read a single page of the novel.
It is evident that considerable thought was devoted to the casting, and however you imagined the characters when reading the novel they will forevermore wear the faces of the men and women chosen to portray them. The news that the key role of Frodo Baggins was to be assayed by Elijah Wood caused me no small measure of concern, since he’s never been the most charismatic of actors (time has yet to erase the memory of his annoying performance in Deep Impact). The fantasy setting seems to agree with him, however, and he brings a newfound maturity to bear on a role he may well have been born to play.
Frodo spends most of the film being led around by his protectors, but he’s no babe in the woods, and Wood finds it within himself to believably portray his character’s inner strength. Frodo’s not a traditional fantasy hero – he doesn’t hack down legions of orcs with his trusty shortsword, earn the love of elvish princesses or vow to crush his enemies in a way that makes you believe he might actually be capable of carrying out his threats – but he speaks for everyone who’s ever been forced to place a noble cause above their personal aspirations. Wood’s perpetually mournful demeanour captures Frodo’s sorrow at being torn from home and hearth to wander a world he had no desire to experience, and his earnest vocal delivery is always appropriate to the occasion.
It’s no surprise that Ian McKellen excels as Gandalf, the wizard whose apparent senility masks his true abilities. McKellen is criminally underrated (his performance in Gods and Monsters was award material), but the days when he was known as nothing more than the villain from X-Men are now well and truly over. He combines the sensitivity he displayed in G&M with the hard-edged resolve he brought to bear on X-Men, making it easy to understand why Gandalf is accorded the love and respect of his companions despite his occasionally aloof demeanour.
Of the remaining performances, Viggo Mortensen’s charismatic turn as Aragorn is a highlight, Sean Astin never puts a foot wrong in his depiction of Sam’s dour but loyal personality, Liv Tyler is surprisingly digestible as Arwen, and Sean Bean’s history of playing unstable characters makes him a natural for Boromir. Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett make serviceable elves, but it’s left to Ian Holm to provide the most memorable performance in the entire film – his take on Bilbo Baggins is astonishing, encompassing gentle good humour and borderline madness with a depth of feeling that’s alternately touching and wrenching.
There’s certainly a couple of weak spots – Christopher Lee (Saruman) seems to be under the impression that he’s playing another a garden-variety megalomaniac, and Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan (Pippen and Merry) turn in fine performances in the service of annoying characters (their bumbling, wisecracking humour is at odds with the tone of the film). However, for an undertaking of this magnitude to feature so few debatable casting and characterisation decisions is a testament to the commitment of everyone involved, and we can look to the additional characters who will populate the sequels with an easy heart.
Of course, when you’re dealing with nine major characters and a huge supporting cast it’s obvious that some will fare better than others. Gandalf, Frodo and Bilbo get the best of it, while the likes of Gimli and Legolas fade into the background until their martial skills are required. However, everyone gets their moment in the sun (witness Gimli’s reaction to the sacking of Moria), and the connection they establish during these scenes raises them above the level of second-string spear-carriers. We should also remember that they’ve got another five hours to come to the fore in the sequels, so viewing the film in isolation may not provide a realistic appraisal of their contribution to the narrative.
The production design represents an undertaking on a scale that, to a layman such as myself, is almost incomprehensible. The production notes assert that every single object in the film was hand-crafted to order, and I don’t doubt it for a second. Every cent of the budget is visible on the screen, to the extent that it represents possibly the most realistic alternate universe yet committed to celluloid. The backgrounds look like something out of a drawing by the Brothers Hildebrandt, and the breathtaking digital effects are seamlessly integrated into the sets and outdoor locations.
When viewed objectively, the overall narrative isn’t particularly innovative – it’s a quest to save the world from a legendary villain, with the staunch hearts of the few standing against the evil of the many. This is, of course, the equivalent of describing Oliver Twist as a story about a kid who falls in with bad company, for it ignores the depth which exists within the whole.
An unusually large proportion of the script exists solely to contribute to the atmosphere, lending it a weight which enhances the mythic overtones. The pace is somewhat leisurely, and when our heroes are taking tea with Galadriel or wandering around Elrond’s palace you might find yourself wishing they’d just hit the road and find some more orcs to kill, but it is these very scenes that create the impression of a living, breathing world.
Recreating Middle-earth in all its splendour is well and good, but it would have been for nothing if the script was empty of emotion. The film takes itself very seriously, with an atmosphere that borders on the oppressive (Galadriel’s reaction to being offered the ring is the stuff of nightmares), and this occasionally lends the proceedings a somewhat cold and distant air. However, the scales are balanced by scenes which concentrate on the relationships between the characters – Bilbo and Gandalf’s obvious affection for each other is unusually affecting, and a grief-stricken scene near the exit to Moria is positively sublime.
At certain junctures our heroes are called upon to do more than just talk, and when the gloves come off it’s a sight to behold. Despite the PG-friendly violence, the artfully choreographed skirmishes will have you cheering with abandon as our heroes face off against orcs, cave trolls, ringwraiths, Uruk-Hai and the odd Balrog. There’s few identifiable villains, but you won’t be complaining when you’re ducking blades, axes and arrows deep within the oppressive environs of Moria. It's also worth mentioning that the opening sequence leaves little doubt the filmmakers are up to the task of recreating immense battles with similar aplomb, which bodes well for the forthcoming slaughter at Helm’s Deep (if it’s not the highlight of the series, I’ll eat the entire novel one page at a time).
Many factors contribute to my admiration for this film, but in the end a single scene tells the story. The Fellowship are rafting down a river bordered by dense woodland, and the camera takes a moment to capture the magnificent scenery in all its glory, with the rafts reduced to insignificant specks amidst the imposing landscape. Then, as the river narrows to accommodate the mountainous terrain, two gargantuan statues come into view. The travellers study these ancient wonders, crafted in a time when the world was young and heroes walked the land, and as they reflect upon the lessons of history the river leads them ever closer to the glorious and tragic destiny that awaits them on the road to Mordor.
The overwhelming sense of wonder I experienced during this brief scene is the single greatest testament to Jackson’s vision – it wasn’t critical to the narrative, but there have been few moments in my life when the real world seemed further away. It was the culmination of over two hours of intelligent scripting, committed performances and atmospheric filmmaking, and when the awe on the characters' faces is mirrored on your own you know you’re in the presence of a film that makes an objective assessment redundant.The Fellowship of the Ring combines the big-budget assault of a major action flick with the artistic sensibilities of talented scriptwriters, and the result is a film whose nuances you’ll be digesting for many years to come. We have to wait two long years before the trilogy is complete, but this is Jackson’s final gift – he’s not just giving us a film for the ages, he’s giving us a reason to live.
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originally posted: 12/28/01 23:54:05
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