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The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring A+
Year Released: 2001
Three Rings for Elven-kings under the sky,
Bringing one of the great works of 20th-century literature to the big screen is no small undertaking. Despite all the hype engendered so far by the book's reputation (and, of course, the film's ubiquitous publicity campaign), there have also been doubtful voices; it has for instance been said that the feeling, flavor and sheer scope of this literary masterwork could never be adequately captured on the silver screen. As you sit down in the theater to watch this film (as you no doubt will do before long), take careful note of how those voices are utterly and completely silenced the moment the lights go down and a breathtaking Cate Blanchett-narrated montage gives us the gist of the Tolkien poem quoted above.
I was lucky enough to attend an advance screening last Monday, and it was interesting to note the slight wave of apprehension that washed over the crowd as the lights went down. Here it was, the most eagerly anticipated film of the year, and considering the phenomenal nature of the material being adapted, stakes were high; this was either going to be a huge disappointment, or a monumental milestone in our film-going careers. Three absolutely spellbinding hours later, as 400 dazed Tolkienites (some in full costume and carrying battle-axes, no less) walked out of the theater, there was no question which of the two had won out. This is one of the finest, if not the finest, fantasy films ever made.
The first thing that captures the eye, naturally, is the incredible cinematography and production design. Every nook and cranny of Middle-earth has been wrested from our collective mind's eye and thrown up on the screen in all its wild splendour. From the warm hearths and grassy meadows of the Shire, to the shining beauty of Rivendell, to the pinnacle of Orthanc, down the dark mines of Isengard and through the faded glory of Moria, everything is portrayed so magnificently that it will take scores of viewings to fully appreciate the film's visual scope. Artists and long-time Tolkien illustrators John Howe and Alan Lee participated in the project, working with Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie as conceptual designers, and to anyone who has seen the pair's famous renderings of Tolkien's world, be it in books, calendars or elsewhere, their influence here is quite obvious -- and worthy of tremendous praise. Also notable is the flawless way in which Lesnie handles the problem of portraying the immense difference in height between men and hobbits. Near the beginning of the film, there is a scene where Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) have a fateful conversation in Bag End, Bilbo's home, and right from the start Bilbo's diminutive stature is so utterly natural that it was a good five minutes before I realized that no, Ian Holm isn't really three feet tall.
Like all novel-to-film adaptations, The Fellowship of the Ring has to wrestle with the eternal problem of what to exclude and what to keep in. Die-hard fans of Tolkien's saga might be saddened to see that many of the encounters and interludes which gave the book much of its flavor are gone; there's no Tom Bombadil, no Gildor Inglorion and no Farmer Maggot (though, to be fair, he is hinted at), and some of the more peripheral characters are slightly lacking due to the unfortunate fact that the film can't devote as much time to character development as the book obviously could. As an example of this, the delightful characters of Sam Gamgee and Peregrin Took, though very well portrayed by Sean Astin and Billy Boyd respectively, are given precious little definition; after the screening, a friend of mine who has never read the book wondered aloud why Sam frequently addressed Frodo as 'Mister Frodo,' and little wonder: the film never fully explains that he is Frodo's servant as well as his friend.
But here's the thing: with any lesser novel (and, indeed, any lesser movie), these gripes might well turn out to be fatal. Here, though, they are simply inconsequential, because the main events of the book's plot are adapted in such an obsessively faithful manner, and there is such a wealth of wonders to draw from, that the film's three-hour running time doesn't feel like three hours at all. Jackson strikes a delicate balance between portraying the important plot points and giving the audience something to chew on; there's romance and action aplenty, and neither cup ever overflows. Thankfully, he's also cautious with the computer graphics, saving this film from becoming a video game like some recent blockbusters (The Mummy Returns springs to mind) and choosing instead to utilize CGI mostly for its real strength: portraying the vast vistas and fantastic landscapes of Middle-earth, allowing the audience to linger on beautiful valleys and majestic mountains, and, in one particularly spectacular shot, swoop down from the tower of Orthanc deep into the fiery mines of Isengard. Of course, there are scenes with computer animated monsters and abominations as well (Moria is particularly rife with them), and they are executed very well, but most of the battle scenes still have real actors involved on both sides. The beginning of the film, which relates the creation and subsequent loss of the One Ring by Sauron, has an incredible mass battle between the forces of Isildur of Gondor and the dark lord himself. Not since Braveheart has there been a mass battle executed with such spine-rattling gusto. For Tolkien fans, this scene alone is worth the price of admission, and while it was running I actually felt tears pressing on the back of my eyes simply out of sheer admiration. If this film doesn't get at least one of the technical Oscars, I'm going to permanently lose all faith in the Academy.
While none of the performances here could really be described as tour-de-force, they are all more than adequate, and deserving of special mention are Ian McKellen (who I'm certain has used some arcane ritual to summon the spirit of Gandalf from within the pages of the book and somehow clothe himself in it), Elijah Wood (whose portrayal of Frodo Baggins was, I admit, tremendously better than I expected, and must rank among his best work) and Ian Holm, whose Bilbo is eerily close to the way I (and, I suspect, many others) have envisioned him throughout the years. Cate Blanchett makes a relatively short but very powerful appearance as Galadriel, Queen of Lothlorien, and Liv Tyler is surprisingly good in a short stint as Arwen, daughter of Elrond. Elrond, portrayed by Hugo Weaving, constitutes my only slight problem with this otherwise fine cast; his performance in 1999's The Matrix was apparently too good, because occasionally he'll put a certain twist on a sentence and we suddenly get the sense that this noble, aloof leader of the elves is about to go "Agent Smutthh" on us. Slightly distracting, but all told not a big problem.
For a film like this, a single viewing is barely dipping your toes in the pool. Before writing this review, I would have liked to see the film at least three times, and you know what? I probably would have spent the whole nine hours in the theater, with nary a bathroom break to interrupt my rapture. Need I say more? If you're a Tolkien fan, I don't have to tell you to go and see this, but I will tell you that you're going to be happy with it. Exactly how happy? That mostly depends on how willing you are to accept the inability of cinema to encompass everything a novel is capable of encompassing. Even if some details were omitted, the sheer love for the story and for Tolkien's world shines through every frame. The words may not all be there, but the spirit most certainly is. So just sit down, and let yourself be swept away.
Review published 12.11.2001.
For another opinion, read Rob Vaux's review.
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