Wednesday, December 19, 2001
Most films invite you into a different world for a couple of hours, showing you people and places that you know little about. We expect this world to be convincing, and to have a depth that allows us to suspend our disbelief for a time.
But very few films – whether fantasies or not – have created as coherent and powerful a vision as that shown in The Lord of the Rings.
Unlike the well-made but shallow Harry Potter, this is myth for grown-ups, with a palpable sense of evil, and a sweep and scale that wins out over the problems of bringing such a dense book to the screen.
The opening of the film suggest the purview of the movie, with the first words being, ‘The world is changing,’ and it’s director Peter Jackson’s triumph that he gives a sense of the broad context for the actions of Frodo and the others, while also allowing them to live as individuals.
To create a convincing fantasy world that exists in the moment is challenging enough, but to give us history lessons at the same time as telling us a taut adventure story is a real triumph.
Throughout the three hours the pacing is excellent, and if some events are given little enough screen time (Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler went a long way for not much work), the rhythm seldom sags.
If the world that Tolkien imagined is brought impressively to life, it can also be argued that the film also reflects Tolkien’s inability to draw complex characters. So elves are all ethereal and vaguely Arian, dwarves sturdy and quick-tempered (and Welsh), while the hobbits are good-natured and surprisingly resilient.
But Tolkien and the film are making epic, and the point is that the characters have a nobility and grandeur that has passed from the current world. Nor does this suggest that the good vs evil battle is clumsily drawn.
Saruman’s expediency as he engages in the Middle-Earth versions of genetic engineering and industrialization hints at the dangers of the modern age, while Boromir’s tragedy is that his sense of duty and honour to Gondor overcome his better judgement.
Aragorn’s burden as being a king without a kingdom, and heir to the hero and villain Isildur is particularly well-drawn.
At the council in Rivendell (symbolically during autumn – winter is coming, the elves are leaving, foolish humans are taking over) there’s a sense that the world is doomed, and this air of real menace permeates the film.
The performances also support this complexity of vision. Elijah Wood, with his translucent skin and childlike eyes, captures Frodo’s brave uncertainty, while Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is impressively stern and careworn, and Sean Bean nails Boromir’s Viking spirit.
And they all move in a world that is a joy to behold. If the ring is a supporting character in the drama (it certainly is more in control than the Fellowship), then so is the New Zealand landscape. It looks both very familiar and also slightly alien – the mountains and rivers heightened versions of what we’re used to in this small-scale continent.
There are problems, though. The fight scenes are brutal but chaotic, and it’s hard to work out exactly what’s happening. Viggo Mortensen’s English accent goes astray at times, and his weasel blankness is supposed to hint at Aragorn’s nobility, but sometimes he just looks blank.
But Jackson has created a dense, well-structured and rewarding version of the book, and I’m already looking forward to the next film, and thinking about how cool it would be to be like Legolas, firing two arrows at a time and walk across the top of snow without leaving footprints.