Lord of the Rings
The Fellowship of the Ring
review by Emma French, 28 December 2001

A rare instance of a film that lives up to its hype, the ambition, visual styling and set piece scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring constantly emphasise that doing justice to Tolkien’s extraordinary imaginative legacy has only recently become technically possible through the medium of cinema. From the superb opening battle sequence it is evident that whilst much of Tolkien’s vision has inevitably been distilled, the elusive tone and feel of his works has been captured with rare and extraordinary success, a tribute to both director Peter Jackson and screenwriter Frances Walsh. The limited weaknesses of the film are, like those of the inferior Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, often weaknesses resulting from the need to preserve fidelity to the original text. The huge amount of exposition required for The Fellowship of the Ring has been ingeniously and dramatically condensed, but drawing the audience into the complex mythology and huge cast of characters of Middle-earth still requires a vast apparatus of explanatory material, which is handled as lightly and deftly as it can be. Frustratingly brief appearances by many of those who will emerge as lead characters is a shrewd move in terms of ensuring an enduring audience for the following two parts of the franchise, but sometimes fails in granting this film sufficient stand-alone quality. A surprisingly flat and inconsequential ending is both comprehensible and legitimate as the close of the first third of Lord of the Rings, but as the climax to The Fellowship of the Ring it fails to pack the punch of the mind-blowing cinema that has preceded it.

The praise that has been heaped upon the film for expanding upon the very limited female roles in the Tolkien text masks the fact that Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) still enjoy a surprisingly brief period of screen time, though sufficient foundations are laid for their more extensive reappearance in the next two films. Both actresses possess a suitably other-worldly ethereality but have little scope to really flex their thespian muscles. Elijah Wood is well-cast as the lead, Hobbit Frodo Baggins, embodying naïve goodness and purity, but the camera’s insistent close-ups on his tear-filled blue eyes begin to grate slightly after three hours. Ian Holm is an ideal elderly Bilbo Baggins, but the most brilliant piece of casting, and the stand-out performance, is that of Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey. Though undeniably a force for good, the steely glint in McKellen’s eyes is sufficiently reminiscent of his villainous tour de forces in films such as Apt Pupil and Richard Loncraine’s Richard III to ensure that his power is not misinterpreted as purely benevolent.

The early scenes introducing Bilbo, Frodo and Gandalf in the Shire are amongst the most impressive in a stunning film, with Bilbo Baggin’s house and Gandalf’s firework displays appropriate visual treats to grace Hobbiton. Seldom has a film boasted such visual coherence in a subtle and seamless blending of form and content. Frodo’s loss of innocence and journey into tribulation are accompanied by a palpable change in his landscape, as the pastoral idyll of the Shire transmutes into gnarled tress, swamp and marsh, vast underground mines and menacing colossus statues. Shades of Peter Jackson’s much earlier work, Heavenly Creatures, may be detected in the manner in which the New Zealand landscape has its own personality and spiritual aura, alternatively aiding and conspiring against the Fellowship. Personifications of the massed forces of the Dark Lord Sauron are appropriately terrifying-the Dark Riders and the Orcs all the more frightening for their status as grotesquely debased and perverted versions of good elves and kings, a premonition of the utter corruption beckoning the ring’s possessor.

It is perhaps inevitable given its forging of a new mythology, scope, ambition, technological achievement and similar structure that this film should strongly recall Star Wars on many occasions. It must be said that whilst The Empire Strikes Back was the strongest of the original trilogy despite being the one most reliant upon the other two films for comprehensibility, Star Wars: A New Hope achieved greater autonomy and a stronger ending than The Fellowship of the Ring. In every other sense though, the achievement of Peter Jackson’s films outdoes the Lucas productions. Though Frodo’s three young Hobbit companions initially vie with Jar Jar Binks as annoying sidekicks, the darkness and danger into which they are cast spares them a similarly lightweight and sentimental treatment. Gandalf, it must be supposed, will sadly be returning to Frodo only in wraith-like form for the remainder of the trilogy just as Obi Wan Kenobi did, but Ian McKellen is a far shrewder, meatier and pugilistic old sage than Alec Guinness’s gentlemanly recluse Ben Kenobi. Gandalf’s physical fight with the corrupted wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) is magnificently staged, and its shocking violence exemplifies the many occasions upon which expectations are frustrated, reversed, and surpassed in Jackson’s film.

Unlike the majority of lavish Hollywood blockbusters, The Fellowship of the Ring pays the audience the respect of justifying every penny of the huge financial outlay involved in filming the trilogy: virtually every scene bears the marks of having love and money poured into it to ensure dramatic and aesthetic perfection. Superlatives begin to run dry in attempting to describe this film’s achievement, and even the comparative weakness of the final thirty minutes may be reinterpreted as a strength, as it makes the year-long wait for The Two Towers marginally more tolerable.

Directed by:
Peter Jackson

Elijah Wood
Cate Blanchett
Liv Tyler
Ian Holm
Ian McKellen
Christopher Lee

Written by:
Frances Walsh

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.




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