WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: Tasked by his wizard friend Gandalf with the destruction of an all-powerful magic ring, young Hobbit Frodo Baggins discovers that he will need more than three well-meaning friends by his side to succeed in his mission and defeat the Dark Lord Sauron. With Gandalf’s intermittent help, Bilbo and his friends find assistance from the world of men, elves and dwarves as they plot a path towards Sauron’s lair in Mordor. However, the lure of the ring makes it hard for Frodo to trust anyone – or anything.
And we begin… Once upon a time, in an idyllic part of Middle Earth known as The Shire, a short, big-footed Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is living to a ripe old age, surrounded by family such as nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Frodo’s pals Samwise, Pippin and Merry (Sean Astin, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan). Wise, wizened wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) is fond of all the Hobbits, but he can sense that little Bilbo has a big secret; indeed he has, for Baggins has become the custodian of a ring created by the Evil Sauron, which bestows invisibility and great power yet binds its wearer to become evil’s slave. The ring is sought by many inhabitants of Middle Earth, not least ringwraiths, former kings who are bound to Sauron, and a cursed creature called Gollum; so Gandalf persuades Bilbo to (reluctantly) part with it, giving it to Frodo to destroy in the fires of faraway Mount Doom in Mordor. While Gandalf seeks advice from his friend Saruman (Christopher Lee) only to find that he has turned to the Dark Side – though Saruman cannot keep Gandalf prisoner forever – Frodo and his friends quickly get into trouble, requiring rescue from a dashing ranger called Strider (Viggo Mortensen), who also comes to their aid when they are attacked by ringwraiths. Though Frodo is wounded, Strider’s Elven partner Arwen (Liv Tyler) saves his life by taking him to Rivendell. There, Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) assembles a fellowship to accompany Frodo and the other hobbits on their journey: Gandalf, Elven archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom), fiery dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Boromir (Sean Bean), presumptive heir of human kingdom Gondor, and Strider, who is mysteriously also known as Aragorn. The gang will need all their strength and courage to keep Frodo safe during their journey to Mount Doom, for the lure of the ring is corrosive and, besides, Saruman is assembling a fearsome army of Orcs, Trolls and other fearsome beasts to confront them.
Just to give you an idea of my perspective on FotR (for brevity’s sake), I’ve never read any Tolkien, my closest brushes being the first few screens of The Hobbit on the ZX Spectrum* and passing by Sarehole Mill most days when I worked in Birmingham. I’m coming at the [theatrical version of the] film purely as a film, seen on its release in 2001 and just now; and strangely, all my notes begin “even if…” So, even if the tale takes a little while to get going; even if many of the story’s big themes have been appropriated (who knows how consciously) by the likes of Star Wars and the Harry Potter franchise (possessed jewellery, eh?); even if I didn’t entirely keep a grip on the place names – so Isengard’s evil, but a different evil place than Mordor? Even if the languages get a bit needlessly Klingonny at times; even if there’s a hint of Back to the Future in one of the musical themes; even if Orlando Bloom’s Legolas stares around the place like a little boy lost; and even if, as is entirely possible, in fifty years’ time this film and its sequels will look as quaint and technically limited as Jason and the Argonauts does now – some of the stand-ins used for characters of different heights do look a bit silly.
Even if all these things are true, Fellowship of the Ring is still an almost incomparably magnificent piece of storytelling. From the moment Frodo leaves the safety of The Shire with his friends in tow and the ring in his pocket, Peter Jackson gives us a tale of heroism, of danger, of good and evil, of greed and sacrifice, which is simultaneously thematically chunky and blood-pumpingly action-packed. The backstory is told concisely but cleanly, helping us to understand the origins of the ring, the ringwraiths, Gollum and much more; and while there is enough specific detail to keep all but the most tonto Tolkien fans happy (eg. the ringwraiths also being referred to as Nazgul), the film never sacrifices the flow of the story to appease nerds, frequently punctuating stretches of walking (showing beautiful New Zealand and/or fantastical landscapes) with gripping hack’n’slash action. Which is not to say that it’s all about the battles: if you’re not intensely bound up in the story of Frodo and his eclectic alliance of bodyguards by the start of the third act, there’s something wrong with you, and even then you’ve still time to fall under the film’s spell during the fellowship’s fraught journey through the mines of Moria or their climactic confrontation with Orcs. If Jackson doesn’t quite present the material with the humour or sheer verve of, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s mainly because this is film-making of another order of magnitude again, deserving of being called epic. The set design is marvellous, and even though there are clear traces (ten years on) of digital manipulation, the care and budget spent on the locations ensures that the film will never look cheap, fake or camp.
Just as impressive is the fact that in a vast, effects-heavy film such as this one, the director is still careful to wrangle excellent performances from his stars. Wood is not a wide-eyed passenger but a vulnerable, fallible, but mostly brave protagonist; Ian McKellen is a fantastic Gandalf, capable of immense warmth, towering rage and uncomfortable foreboding, while Lee proves a worthy adversary. Mortensen is unhealthily magnetic and good-looking, while John Rhys-Davies is amusingly Brian Blessed-esque as Gimli. All of Frodo’s friends are solid, and there are also impressive contributions from Holm (a distinctly uncuddly Bilbo), Tyler, Weaving and many more I’ve not mentioned, such as Cate Blanchett who plays Galadriel with fascinating ambiguity.
I may be wrong, but I have a feeling Fellowship of the Ring lies in many a film collection, with or without the other movies in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, unwatched for years. It is a fairly lengthy film – though under three hours in the theatrical version – but once past the leisurely start, the time absolutely flies by. If you haven’t seen it, or not seen it in a while, please dig it out and experience this glorious tale, impeccably told, for yourself. By comparison, most modern movies are empty, trashy and incoherent flashes in the pan.
NOTES: I simply didn’t have the patience, though I spent months on Starion and Bobby Bearing. But I digress.