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THE LORD OF THE RINGS - THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)
This isnít some happy, kid-friendly adventure Ė itís the story of how an entire world is plunged into war. To be precise, itís the story of how that war starts, focusing on the first stage of unassuming hobbit Frodoís (Elijah Wood) quest to take down the dark lord Sauron by lobbing his evil magic ring into the fires of bad-guy-stronghold Mount Doom. On the way we meet a wide array of supporting characters, including fiery-tempered dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), fiesty she-elf Arwen (Liv Tyler), rugged, heroic ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and powerful wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Sadly, though, in true first-part-of-series fashion, we donít really have time to get to know many of them properly, despite the hefty, three-hour running time.
Of course, chances are youíll be so swept away by Jacksonís ambitious realisation of Tolkienís world, you wonít be bothered too much by missing the odd plot detail. This isnít the pristine, obviously- digitised universe of The Phantom Menace, but something grittier, darker and far more immersive. Effects house Weta seamlessly blends the beautiful New Zealand landscapes with some Oscar-beckoning virtual creations, and shows admirable restraint with CGI, relying more on more traditional make-up effects when pixels arenít really needed.
Then thereís Jacksonís deft handling of the action, keeping things pacey despite several rest-stops, and delivering some feverish, frenetic swordplaying set-pieces. Most notable is the Mines Of Moria sequence. With its scurrying goblin army, roaring cave troll and the towering, flame-whipping Balrog, itíll jam your heart in your gob and hold it there, beating wildly, for a good half-hour.
You can thank the gods that Jackson has assembled a strong, spark-striking cast, who do far more than simply stand in front of a blue screen and drone their lines at a spot slightly to the left of a yet-to-be-conjured CG image. Wood, in particular, handles Frodoís descent from happy-go-lucky adventurer to tragedy-courting hero with subtlety and sensitivity, while the relatively unknown Mortensen perfectly captures Aragornís rugged charisma and mystique. But itís McKellenís Gandalf who really stands tall. It must be hard to play someone who youíre told brims with power without making it too hammy, but McKellen manages it effortlessly. Gandalf may be a fearsome, spell-slinging wizard, but, thanks to McKellen, heís easily the most accessible and Ďhumaní character portrayed.
Pointed hats off to Jackson, then, for delivering on his promise to stay faithful to the book and produce a movie thatíll make the hairs on your feet tingle, rather than unleashing another horrendous sword-and-sorcery clag-beast. George Lucas and Chris Columbus should take notes, because this is fantasy film-making at its spine-shivering best. Roll on The Two Towers...
So that's what the fuss is all about. I mean the passion, the devotion, the obsession of people for whom the fate of fictional characters who live in Middle-earth -- players named Frodo and Gandalf, Aragorn and Elrond, Gollum and Sauron -- means more, at times, than the fate of the real people who live next door. It's not usually necessary, or shouldn't be, to announce one's lack of familiarity with literary source material in order to assess a movie's qualities as a movie. But, remembering the ferocity of high school classmates -- boys, mostly -- who steeped themselves in Elvish arcana while the girls wallowed in Salinger and Sylvia Plath, I open by saying that I have never read the fantasy series by the tweedy British scholar J.R.R. Tolkien, the modern lit classic known as "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
And I follow quickly by saying that The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is thrilling -- a great picture, a triumphant picture, a joyfully conceived work of cinema that (based on this first installment, with two more ready for release in the next two years) would appear to embrace Tolkien's classic with love and delight, and rewards both adepts and novices with the highest compliment of all: an intelligence and artistry as a movie independent of blind fidelity to the page. The Middle-earth of this "Fellowship" -- as directed by Peter Jackson with all the graceful inventiveness hoped for from the maker of "Heavenly Creatures" -- is vibrantly, intricately alive on its own terms. This is what magic the movies can conjure with an inspired fellowship in charge, and unlimited pots of gold.
One of the "Fellowship's" most exemplary attributes is the ease and good instinct with which Jackson regularly shifts perspectives, both structurally and visually, from the epic to the intimate and back again: Thousand-year-old, thousand-creature battles (depicted with of-the-moment computerized assistance) really do look and feel as awesome as such mythological battles ought to but rarely do -- and then the focus shifts to the tenderness expressed in the close-up half smile of a gentle wizard. Having laid out the saga's prehistory in a thunderous yet (blessedly) comprehensible prologue -- the Great Rings of Power created by the Dark Lord Sauron, the Elven Kings, the Dwarf Lords, the Mortal Men, the one master ring capable of shifting the balance of power in the world, the whole fantastical yada yada -- Jackson carries us to the Shire, home of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), his young cousin, Frodo (Elijah Wood), and all their pint-size, hairy-footed, pointy-eared fellow hobbits, living in an idyllic village of excellently cozy wee homes such as Real Simple magazine would swoon to photograph.
As Frodo greets the return of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), the hobbits' wizardly protector who has returned for Bilbo's 111th birthday party, the boy and the graybeard share a wagon ride together into a village detailed enough to delight Munchkins, Breughel, and the kitsch painter Thomas Kinkade alike. Frodo is the hero-as-average-fellow in Tolkien's tale, the very opposite of a strapping action figure, to whom will fall the saga's great heroic assignment -- and Wood imbues the role with such a serious, kindly, unmannered goodness that he holds his ground easily even against such attention-getting costars as McKellen, Cate Blanchett as the impossibly dreamy Lady Galadriel (queen of all elves), and Viggo Mortensen (impossibly dreamy himself) as the broody and mysterious Aragorn.
The cast take to their roles with becoming modesty, certainly, but Jackson also makes it easy for them: His "Fellowship" flows, never lingering for the sake of admiring its own beauty. There's no time, anyway. Despite the fact that this first episode runs some two and a half hours -- and despite the fact that (scholars tell me) some characters from the book have been excised in the mellifluous screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Jackson -- there's a massive amount of story to cover. Every detail of which engrossed me. I may have never turned a page of Tolkien, but I know enchantment when I see it.
I cannot stress this strongly enough: do not see this movie. If you do, it will ruin you for everything else. Films you've seen before, films you're waiting to see, films you have on DVD... it doesn't matter. All will pale by comparison after you finally lay eyes on Peter Jackson's visionary masterpiece.
It feels like my eyes have been seared by three hours worth of raw imagination somehow burned into the emulsion by the sheer force of Peter Jackson's will, like there are images etched there now that I cannot shake, that I do not want to shake. I close my eyes and I see a rush of moments, little details that pulled me into Middle-Earth with an intensity of belief I haven't felt since I was seven years old. I have called friends up out of the blue, emotional today, dying to tell them about the movie. I am spilling over, drunk and delirious because my faith has been restored. FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING isn't just as good as you've heard; it's not just as good as the hype says; it's not just a brilliant movie.
With utter confidence, I can say that FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is one of the ten finest motion pictures it has ever been my pleasure to see.
I can't hype you up too much for FELLOWSHIP. It's that good. It's dense with detail, richly imagined, beautifully performed. The casting is exquisite, down to the smallest role in the film. The design of the thing is breathtaking. I found myself lost in the corners of the screen this morning, marvelling at the depth of Middle-Earth. This isn't some set, some backlot invention. This is a place, a real point in time and space that Peter Jackson has somehow managed to invade with his cameras and his actors. Actually, even that's not true, since these don't feel like actors. The faces may be familiar, but that's Gandalf the Grey. That's Frodo Baggins. That's certainly Samwise Gamgee. Who else could they be? I spent three hours with them, and I certainly believe they are who they claim to be. And those locations... I didn't realize half of those towers and castles were actually standing in New Zealand. Hell, I didn't realize the Shire was real. But I saw the evidence of these things with my own two eyes today. Rivendell... Lothlorien... the Mines of Moria... these are remarkably preserved, all things considered. I'm fascinated to learn more about the animal wrangler that had to handle the Ringwraith's horses, the Cave Troll, and the Balrog. Must've been a tough gig. Still, getting to visit such amazing places in the flesh is an adventure I envy each of the cast and crew, whether they're indigenous like Gimli and Legolas and the Hobbits, or just visiting like Boromir and Aragorn and Isildur.
What I'm trying to say in my own muddled and overexcited way is that the Age of Diminished Expectations is over. We may not have even realized we were living in it. There's this truth we try not to acknowledge, and we go out of our way to talk around it, to rationalize it away. But after sitting through FELLOWSHIP, it's impossible to keep up the charade.
Three hours of film runs by, and you realize that miracles are possible. You remember what it meant to be in true awe of someone's ability to create. You see real magic performed right in front of your eyes, and your first reaction is disbelief because you simply can't be seeing what you're seeing. I thought I'd spend the first part of the film adjusting, getting used to Jackson's version of things. I was sure there'd be a million little idiosyncratic personal things about the film that would make it too quirky for the mainstream, too cultish to ever cross over. Instead, from the opening frame to the last, I believe FELLOWSHIP is an example of flawless, intelligent storytelling that can be understood and appreciated by anyone, anywhere.
This is a story that is about not just one race, but all races, setting aside their differences in order to stop evil in whatever form it takes. There is something truly doomed about the elves and the hobbits and the dwarves, and it took me until the middle of the movie to figure it out. Middle-Earth is not some other planet. Middle-Earth is not meant to be fantasy. In the work that Tolkien wrote and the film that Jackson made, Middle-Earth is a point in the real past of our world. Middle-Earth existed. These things we're watching are not fables meant to teach some simple moral lesson. These are the events that led to the rise of man in the world. These are the days in which all these amazing creatures and beings gave themselves so that we might pick up the pieces and continue on.
There is a profound sadness to the film, a sense of a permanent autumn rolling in. Jackson is wise to start the film with history that has already passed into myth as far as most of the denziens of Middle-Earth are concerned. He shows how easy it is for truth to become past, and past to become legend, and legend to become myth. The story of Sauron and the forging of the One Ring is explained in crystal clarity with a startling glimpse of battle on a level we've never seen on film. No one has ever marshalled film armies of the size we see here. The way the Ring passes into the hands of Isildur, the heir of Gondor, and the way it escapes him, finds Gollum, and eventually ends up in the possession of Bilbo Baggins, it's masterful visual storytelling. At no point is there a crush of information that's impossible to digest. Instead, Jackson and his co-writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh have done a remarkable job of boiling this all down and laying it out. Things are repeated. Peter gently prods at just the right moments, connecting things, underlining the significance without drawing attention to his own directorial hand. By the time the prologue ends, I believed completely in the world and in the story. I was ready for anything.
And when we find Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) leaned up against a tree, reading a book, not a care in the world, it is enough to take my breath away. Here is the last second of real quiet before the storm, the last moment of innocence. This is when everything begins. This is that first step out the door that Bilbo spoke of. And it all starts with a hobbit reading and the sound of a wizard singing on the afternoon wind.
Gandalf (Ian McKellen) rolls into the Shire just in time for the 111th birthday party of Bilbo (Ian Holm), and as he's joined by Frodo, we see him ride across Hobbiton, giving us a look at the place and the people who live there. It doesn't feel like a place that was built for a movie. It feels lived in. It feels like a place you could go and visit, like a location they found. The Shire is achingly beautiful. Gandalf is a "disturber of the peace," according to most of the good hobbits in the area, and Gandalf defends himself against the accusation by Frodo, making mention of "that business with the dragon." It's one of many subtle allusions to THE HOBBIT, Tolkein's original novel, and it adds to the sense of history as things begin. I love the scenes of Bilbo at his birthday party, telling the story to a group of adorable hobbit children. Holm is remarkable in his brief time onscreen, as is most of the sprawling cast. Peter Jackson seems to apply actors to roles the way Van Gogh applied paint to a canvass; there's a sort of madness to it when first viewed, but there's a perfection that is revealed upon closer scrutiny. The birthday party is a wonderful set piece to open the film with. Jackson finds grace notes in almost every shot of the film, always giving us some revealing detail, some perfect touch, some reason to keep watching. When Gandalf and Bilbo come face to face after the party in Bag End, it's our first hint at how emotionally powerful the film is going to be. Visual power is well-established by this point, but during this scene, there is such remarkable work by both actors that all thoughts of effects and editing and makeup and such disappear. Suspension of disbelief is something that you are sometimes required to work harder at, depending on the film. Here, there's no choice. These actors believe it completely, and they draw you into the world. Bilbo is corrupted by the Ring, but on a subtle, personal level. Only when he tries to leave it behind does the Ring's grip finally reveal itself.
And Jackson has made The Ring a character, no doubt about it. The Ring has a will of its own. It has a hunger. It grows and shrinks depending on whose finger it wants to fit. It can find its way onto a finger at just the right moment. There is a sense of malice to its behavior over the course of the film. It is constantly trying to escape Frodo after he accepts the quest to destroy it. It tempts everyone it comes in contact with. It has a voice, a whispered hiss, the sound of seduction. Frodo's relationship with The Ring is played out with an almost eerie grace by Elijah Wood, who steps up as one of the finest actors of his age working today with this film. As good as he's been in the past, the work he does here is transforming. He is an astonishing avatar for us, the viewer, a hero worth following. Much of the film is defined in the way he interacts with the rest of the cast, and it's the support they offer to Wood that makes each of them great in their own way.
Shall we talk of McKellen? He is a marvel, the very model of a great film actor. McKellen has done wonderful work on film before, but in this particular role, he comes to full and vivid life in a way I've never seen. He conveys the full range of emotion in the smallest of gestures with those incredible, expressive eyes of his. He uses his smile to precise effect at several points in the film. Gandalf's love of the hobbits is very strong in the film, demonstrated in any number of gestures and looks, and when he stands up against a threat, whether it be from Saruman, a cave troll, a wave of goblins, or a Balrog, he is imposing, a genuine power. There are a number of moments where we see Gandalf thinking, where we see him make connections with information, and McKellen lets us in, behind his eyes. He is the glue that makes the insanely complicated first half of the film work so well, seem so effortless.
What of Viggo Mortensen? How is his performance as Aragorn, also known as Strider? At first glance, he seems to be playing the familiar scoundrel/warrior archetype we've seen beforE. But Mortensen, an actor I've been hypnotized by is determined not to play what we expect, and as a result, Aragorn is no film hero I've seen. He has a heart open enough to confess his love for Arwen, a sword arm powerful enough to face down five Ringwraiths or a small army of Uruk-Hai by himself, and a sense of duty strong enough to resist the siren call of the Ring when sorely tempted.
Sean Bean, on the other hand, is a revelation here because of the brilliant way he captures the conflict that rages inside Boromir. No easy bad guy, Boromir is a good man who stumbles. He believes in the glory of Gondor, and his description of it is one of the film's best quiet moments. His redemption at the end of the film leads to one of the most wrenching film deaths I've seen in quite a while. Each arrow that is shot into Boromir, I felt deeply. The sound design during this scene is one of those little details that makes me giddy about Peter Jackson. The performances between Mortensen and Bean in those final moments are electric and quite moving. I found myself weeping bitter tears for this weak man who finds unexpected strength at just the right moment.
There were two other moments that sent tears down my cheeks. There's a moment of powerful beauty when Frodo first sees Bilbo in Rivendell, sitting on a bench, THERE AND BACK AGAIN open on his lap. It hit me somewhere deep, and I can't even explain why. It just suddenly felt so real to me. And at the end of the film, there is a moment between Sam and Frodo that convinces me we are going to see them rewarded with Oscars in 2003 as Best Actor and Best Supporting. I had lunch with Sean and Elijah about two weeks after they returned to the U.S. after shooting the movie. I saw a pair of tight friends, guys who had shared some amazing adventure and had reached that point where they had a private language. They spoke about the unique nature of the shoot, and they spoke in glowing terms about the rest of the cast and Jackson in particular. I've talked to a lot of actors over the years, but I don't think I've ever seen anything like the obvious love and faith they felt towards these films, and seeing the final result here, I can understand why.
I've been dying to know about Christopher Lee in the film. I'm an admirer of his from childhood, and I was thrilled when he was announced as part of the cast. Now that I've seen his work as Saruman, I am in awe of Jackson. He cast Lee perfectly, and he gets great work out of this legendary actor. When he and McKellen face off against each other in the wizard's duel that has purists worried, it is a terrifying display of what Saruman is capable of. It's even more frightening when you think back on it. We see Gandalf do some amazing things after escaping on the back of an eagle, and we see some amazing displays of strength from him. When you remember how easily Saruman threw Gandalf around, you get a real sense of how big a danger he can be. He breeds the Uruk-Hai at the request of the Eye of Sauron, and there is an unholy pride in his work that makes him one of the most memorable madmen I can remember in any film.
Then there's Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, and Hugo Weaving. Literally all of the major speaking cast does wonderful work at some point in the film. Astin's Sam is a faithful and courageous fellow, played to perfection by an actor I feel is highly underrated. I hope people finally start to appreciate how generous a performer he seems to be. Bloom and Rhys-Davies are appropriately badass, stalwart representatives of their respective races. There are hero shots of Legolas that will make any sharp-eyed viewer giddy, and I have no idea how they managed to pull off the height trick with Gimli so consistently and gracefully. Boyd and Monaghan are not just comic relief as Pippin and Merry; far from it. They are drawn into events in a comical way, but when things become serious, they reveal hearts every bit as stout as those of Frodo and Sam. Merry in particular has an ability to focus, to really make a difference. Blanchett's Galadriel is quite wondrous, and her moment of temptation when facing the One Ring is both rapturously beautiful and very upsetting. When she resists the temptation and speaks of her plans, saying, "I will allow myself to diminish now," it's achingly sad. Like the rest of the elves, she knows their days in Middle Earth are ending. Liv Tyler speaks in sheer music as Arwen, her lilting Elvish dialogue being one of the most direct sensory pleasures of the film. Hugo Weaving is precise and hypnotic as Elrond, and when we see him in the opening sequence fighting Sauron or in a flashback as he tries to convince Isildur to destroy the One Ring while they have a chance at the lip of Mount Doom, he is impossible to look away from.
Trying to name a favorite moment from the film is an exercise in futility. So many images and incidents come rushing up at the same time, each of them enough for me to recommend a film by itself. There's the first shot of Gollum we see, or the way the world looks when Frodo slips on the Ring, or the sight of the Black Rider at the side of the road, so close to the Hobbits, its presence causing the very worms to boil up out of the earth in fear, desperate to escape. There's the moment when Arwen faces down the Black Riders and they try to cross the river. There's the sequence with the moth. There's the Watcher in the Water heaving its massive body up onto the shore of the lake in pursuit of the Fellowship. There's Gandalf sitting on the back of an eagle, soaring across mountain peaks. You may think I'm spoiling things, that I'm giving too much away, but I've barely scratched the surface.
I could go on and on, and I might. I have to see this film again and just pick up where I left off, praising that which has just begun to sink in. But right now, after this first viewing, I have a feeling that I've only had a few times in my life. I have found that elusive first high all over again, and I am positively sodden with the possibility of film. If I could embrace Peter Jackson tonight to say thank you, and if I could shake his hand, I would. I would commend him on having become a world-class filmmaker, a giant. Then I would jump him, wrestle him to the ground, and eat his brain in an effort to absorb his knowledge. This guy has just upped the stakes for everyone else.
I am impatient now, worse than every before. I want THE TWO TOWERS. I need RETURN OF THE KING. I want to take every step of the journey with Frodo and Sam and Gandalf and Aragorn and Pippin and Merry and all the others. I want to meet Wormtongue and Treebeard and Shelob and more.
And in the meantime, I vow to quit settling. I have decided that I am done forgiving. I have seen that it can be done, that real perfection is possible in film, and I am not willing to settle anymore.
Peter Jackson, you magnificent bastard, you have broken my heart and given me more hope than you can possibly understand all in one fell swoop. I am in love with your movie.