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One Ring Well Worth Keeping

 

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Peter Jackson, New Zealand, 2001

Rating: 5.0

 

 

Posted: December 27, 2001

By Laurence Station

Peter Jackson's cinematic conjuring of The Fellowship Of The Ring, the first of three films based on the enormously successful trilogy by late Oxford linguist and scholar J.R.R. Tolkien, is a grand achievement, a testament to the majesty and wonder the craft of filmmaking can aspire to.

Screenwriters Jackson, Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens have taken an enormous tome (one so large Tolkien's publishers split it into three works) and distilled its essence, maximizing the dramatic encounters and reinforcing the ideas and ideals Tolkien channeled through the deeds and words of his epic characters.

At its heart, Tolkien's work is about humanity accepting responsibility for its industrialized future, as the old agrarian ways are put aside or folded into a new, more mechanized scheme of things. That conflict -- industry versus nature -- lies at the root of the plot. The brute force of those who have little respect for the earth (and use its resources solely to feed the machines of war and aggression) are aptly represented by the corrupted wizard Saruman -- expertly played by Christopher Lee -- and his vile minions. While the protagonists symbolize those who would live in harmony with nature (beautifully rendered in the Elvish cities of Rivendell and Lothlorien).

The film opens with a succinct and informative history of the One Ring, how the dark lord Sauron sought to enslave all of Middle Earth with its power, how the ring was lost for eons and eventually found by the unlikeliest of creatures (a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins) and ultimately bequeathed to his nephew, Frodo (finely handled by the painfully innocent-looking Elijah Wood).

Unfortunately, the ring has contacted its master, who will stop at nothing to regain it. Thus, a benevolent wizard, Gandalf (the pitch-perfect Ian McKellen), entrusts Frodo with a mission to safely carry the ring to Rivendell, where the forces of good have gathered to determine how best to thwart the return of the long-slumbering Sauron.

It's at Rivendell that the fellowship of the title is formed, a group of nine unlikely compatriots. The group includes Frodo and three other hobbits -- the loyal-to-a-fault Sam (Sean Austin), the puckish Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and blundering Pippin (Billy Boyd). Also along for the ride are two humans, brooding-but-brave ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), and skeptical, but-earnest, fighter Boromir (Sean Bean); the bow-wielding elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom); axe-bearing dwarf, Gimli (an unrecognizable John Rhys-Davies); and the powerful Gandalf.

The group is entrusted with taking the ring to the only place it can be unmade, or destroyed: Mount Doom, the location of its original forging. Frodo, the least likely to be tempted by the ring's power, acts as ring-bearer, and it is his innocence that is repeatedly tested as the malevolent object is brought closer to its place of hoped-for destruction.

Aside from the uniformly good lead performances, what really makes the story work is the patience Jackson shows in allowing the characters to express themselves, their fears, hopes and desires. The hobbits convey an expected sense of wonder at stepping outside their home Shire for the first time, acknowledging an immense world beyond their tiny gardens and barrows. Before leaving Rivendell, Aragorn is given a brief moment with his great love, the elf Arwen (a luminous Liv Tyler), while Boromir wrestles with using the One Ring against Sauron, all the while knowing its dark power would corrupt his heart long before he ever had a chance to face the Dark Lord. While in the Mines of Moria, home of his people from ages past, Gimli weeps at the tomb of a fallen cousin, while Legolas, through the actions of his compatriots, learns to see the good in those of non-elvish descent. Throughout, the film reinforces the temptation and folly of unearned power and success, of taking the easy way out versus following the narrow, but true road. These lessons aren't forced upon the audience, but rather delivered naturally and, in several cases, paid for in blood.

There's also a palpable sense of danger throughout, such as when the Dark Riders, servants of Sauron, are literally unleashed from the land of Mordor and set upon the world. The tension holds because Jackson takes his source material seriously, understanding the deeper logic, the fears, phobias and nightmares plaguing us all, but also accepting that this movie should be a thrill ride. If you plan to ask an audience to sit for three hours, you'd better deliver the goods, and it's to Jackson's credit that he handily manages to keep things in focus throughout.

From a technical standpoint, this film is a marvel to behold, from musical score to cinematography, gorgeous New Zealand-for-Middle Earth landscapes to handsomely stitched costumes. From makeup to set designs, the craftsmanship and execution are simply flawless. Jackson captures the feeling of a fantastically, yet logically grounded, imaginary world.

Even masterpieces have their flaws (albeit minor ones), and Fellowship is no exception. Hugo Weaving's Elrond, Lord of Rivendell, aged several millennia or not, is simply too rigid, and the foreshadowing temptations of Boromir and the One Ring are a tad too heavy-handed. Still, the end result in an absolute triumph, a reason to believe that truly wondrous films can still be made, given the right budget and a cast and crew that dedicate themselves, body and soul, to the source material. The second film (The Two Towers) opens Christmas 2002 while the third (The Return of the King) follows a year later.

Based on the high quality attained with the initial offering, Jackson appears well on his way to having crafted one of the most compelling and enjoyable film series of all time, a stirring adaptation worthy of the depth and scope of Professor Tolkien's much-lauded magical world.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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