The Dark Lord Sauron forges a ring of power, which will help him rule over Middle Earth. But it finds its way to the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who passes it on to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). Fearing Sauron`s wrath, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) advises Frodo to flee with the ring, which the latter does, accompanied by Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin). Later, a fellowship of nine is formed to help Frodo take the ring to the only place where it can be destroyed, the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged.
Getting the mythical across on screen has got to be one of the most daunting tasks ever. On the one hand, there is the aspect of the fanciful, the ethereal, that makes us transcend the human, the mundane. At the same time, it`s the very humanness of the characters -- the sacrifices, the courage, the weaknesses -- that makes us invest in them in the first place.
Director Peter Jackson pulls off a stunning tightrope act with these disparate elements in `The Fellowship of the Ring`, a mind-boggling, three-hour mix of spectacle and the intimate that brings to mind the works of David Lean. At one time, we are witnessing quiet enchantment as Bilbo and Gandalf relax in the Shire blowing smoke rings with their weed. Another moment shows us the thundering hooves of horses in elegant slow motion as the Nazgul close in on Frodo.
Just take how the council of elf king Elrond is staged. It`s just as in the book, with members who will go on to form the fellowship at odds with each other about what to do next. The disagreement results in a din. Then we see Frodo looking at the ring that`s causing all this commotion, and a close-up of the band of gold reflects all the fighting that`s happening around. In another beautiful scene, the engravings on the ring are shown to reflect across Frodo`s face, an indication of how intertwined their destinies will be.
These are just a few of the several astounding scenes in which the wordiness of Tolkien has been translated visually with just the same impact. This is a film first, the adherence to the text comes next, unlike the recent Harry Potter movie that had it the other way around. Gone are the elfish legends and extraneous characters like Tom Bombadil. Even Gollum`s role is reduced in scope. The sharp screenplay focuses only on the fellowship; the drama and the action come off the events that they experience.
And the actors complete Jackson`s vision with what has got to be the finest ensemble work in many a moon. Plus, they all pass the crucial just-what-you-imagined-they`d-look-like test. McKellen is magnificent as Gandalf, splendidly bringing out the gravity and the kookiness of the wizard. Just to hear him deliver the `one ring to rule them all` bit alone is worth the price of admission. The other veteran in the cast is Holm, who`s perfect as the sweetly befuddled Bilbo.
Wood and Astin are terrific. You really get a sense of the fabled Frodo-Sam closeness even though their roles are drastically less descriptive than in the book. Orlando Bloom is wonderful as the almost-wordless Legolas, as is Hugo Weaving as Elrond. But it`s Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) and Sean Bean (Boromir) who almost steal the film with their incredible presence and interplay. Billy Boyd (Pippin), Dominic Monaghan (Merry), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Christopher Lee (Saruman) and Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) round out the on-the-ball cast.
Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie creates a magnificent world that almost compensates for the loss of Tolkien`s prose, right from the prelude shot in silvery blacks, which shows us the history of the ring. Some of the photography covers an astounding amount of detail in a fell swoop, like when we see Gandalf imprisoned in a high tower and the `camera` drops dizzyingly to thousands of feet below to show the orcs toiling. The production design and artwork complement the illusion beautifully.
The special effects are excellent. The battles are ferocious, notably the one in which orcs swarm in on the fellowship. And the chases, such as the one in which our heroes have to escape the Balrog by jumping off a shaky bridge, are unbearably intense. Howard Shore`s score is slightly generic, with shades of `The Duel of the Fates` in the choral segments, but the sound effects are ingeniously done. I can still hear in my head the otherworldly screeches in the scenes with the Nazgul.
Naysayers may carp that this is essentially a series of cliffhangers, each one with stakes higher than the predecessor, and therefore not very different from any usual modern-day action adventure, `Willow` for instance. But remove the descriptive parts -- the travelogues of various lands, the poetry, the maps, the genealogies -- and this is what Tolkien`s story is, a classic good-versus-evil battle.
Ultimately, it`s not the tale as much as how it`s told that makes `The Fellowship of the Ring` such a thrilling experience. In spirit, in ambition, this film soars so high that only the realisation that the next instalment is a year away brings us thuddingly back to earth.
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