The Fellowship of the Ring is a movie masterpiece - thrilling, passionate and wise.
From the spine-tingling stentorian tone of the opening, which introduces us to the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien's antique Middle-earth and "The One Ring to Rule Them All," the 40-year-old director, Peter Jackson, engulfs us in the pristine and awful beauties of an alternate universe. This is one spectacle that is emotional and kinetic at the same time. It rouses all the senses; it never shifts into sensory overload and shuts them down.
Jackson's triumph is that his movie lives up to the book's reputation and its title. It is about fellowship, and gloriously so. At the center are a band of brothers - not just the four tiny hobbits led by Frodo (Elijah Wood), but also the gnarly dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), the willowy warrior elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the grizzled men Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean). They preserve virtues that transcend parochial allegiances. They hammer out an alliance devoted to the destruction of the Ruling Ring, which can ruin the world as they know it and corrupt anyone absolutely - including each of them.
The movie imbues this alliance with its own unexpected magic. The whole picture has the moonstruck quality of those tales of enchantment that bring casual notions an otherworldly zing. The sense of something evil in the air registers among the characters almost telepathically. The moral side of their quest, not just their fight for survival, becomes vivid and tactile. When they lose their moral bearings, they lose their physical bearings as well.
Presiding over their blood, sweat, and tears - and a surprising amount of laughter - is Gandalf the wizard, and Ian McKellen portrays him with towering wit and authority. McKellen single-handedly transports us to the arena of heightened emotion that was the natural realm of great epic actors in the silent films. He makes Gandalf's fondness for the hobbits resound more strongly than other actors' turbulent love paeans. His desperation as he fights the morally debased sorcerer Saruman (Christopher Lee) evokes fearful awe at the fragility of even a wizard's life. McKellen sets the bar high.
Luckily, the rest of the cast leaps over it. Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit who has found the One Ring and kept it for many years, mixes affability and deceptiveness with a deftness that outdoes most Shakespearean clowns. Elijah Wood as his cousin Frodo, who inherits the Ring and tries to destroy it in the fires that created it, is both robust and plangent, pulling off a daunting feat with ease - making the education of a naif as dynamic as it is rending.
Wood and Sean Astin as Frodo's closest hobbit friend, Sam Gamgee, create the kind of hero-sidekick bond that isn't merely snide or jokey - it harks back to the stirring fraternities of Robin Hood and his Merry Men or Gunga Din and his soldiers three. And Bean and Mortensen endow their human figures with heartbreakingly tragic dimensions.
When performances of this conviction are combined with visionary moviemaking, the audience's rooting interest intensifies into outright elation. Exhibiting a steady brilliance, Jackson and his collaborators (including co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie) hew to an emotional and narrative line that never bends just to add exotic color.
When they lay out the vile Lord Sauron's forging of the Ring and his loss of it in battle, they plunge us into the horror of natural creatures like men, elves and dwarves facing Lord Sauron's hybrid Orcs - elves tortured into monstrous villainy. The moviemakers visualize with a rare, eloquent clangor the human king Isildur slicing the Ring from Lord Sauron's hand - and Isildur's inability to let go of the Ring once he has it - and the sad poetic justice of Isildur's own subsequent slaughter.
The moviemakers dramatize without any softening both the existence of evil and everyone's vulnerability to it. Hobbit, man, dwarf and elf alike are prey to the seductiveness of the Ring, which renders its owner invisible and promises omnipotence. Even characters flirting with the idea that they can use the power of the Ring for good do so at mortal risk.
The filmmakers keep this internal conflict front and center as they move through each character's spectacular realms. The cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie (of Babe), knows just how much light or half-light to throw on the bucolic Shire of the hobbits, the magically lacy forest kingdoms of the elves, the ominous molten caves of the dwarves.
Without resorting to bogus psychological shorthand, Jackson and his collaborators wax emotional. Like, say, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, another movie partly about greed and ecology, The Fellowship of the Ring grows in power as it takes in its characters' reactions, and seizes on its performers' spontaneity.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson reclaims for live-action movies the urge others have ceded to all-out animation. This picture uses computer-generated imagery but weds it miraculously to resplendent scenery and old-fashioned movie magic, so everything seems of a piece. The result transcends the prefabricated pow of most special-effects extravaganzas.
When Frodo starts to put on the Ring because he fears a looming Ringwraith - an act that attracts the Ringwraith even more - it's a moment of sublime terror. It's also an aesthetic victory for Jackson and his collaborators: for the costumers who captured the Ringwraiths' cloaked menace, for the digital sorcerers who erased their human faces and, of course, for actor Wood, who brings vitality to despair and fright.
Throughout, Jackson moves effortlessly from sprawling fantasy to dramatic coups of clammy intimacy. The movie permits us to lucidly experience the characters' vertigo, whether Frodo is entering a twilight world when he puts on the Ring, or the wicked wizard Saruman is whipping Gandalf around like a paddle-ball.
Best of all, it's like a Wonder Book on film, with images that reverberate in memory - such as heroic stone figures that rise over a great river like a cross between the Colossus of Rhodes and the Pillars of Hercules. As in Tolkien, layers of culture reverberate within the characters - and they're moving as individuals, not as archetypes. No Viking-like funeral on film ever has resonated as deeply as the one that caps the action in this movie.
With The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson has grasped for something more profound than the brass ring. He's seized the Ring of Power without letting it corrupt him. From an old classic, he's made a new classic.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun