The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (PG)

Review by Jack Foley

J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy is estimated to have attracted more than 100 million readers around the globe since it was first read in 1954. It has been voted 'Book of the Century' in several world-wide polls and prompted The London Sunday Times to famously state that the world would forever more be divided into two types of people: "Those who have read Lord of the Rings and those who are going to".

It is little wonder, therefore, that New Line Cinema's decision to film the epic saga of hobbits, dwarves, elves, wizards and, of course, men sparked the type of hysteria that even Star Wars would be envious of.

Lucky for fans, then, that the trilogy has been faithfully brought to the screen by director Peter Jackson, a self confessed admirer of the novels, who put in a record-breaking commitment of time, resources and manpower in to bringing the project to the Big Screen.

The Fellowship of the Ring, I'm glad to be able to report, is a labour of love which more than justifies the hype bestowed upon it. It is an awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping piece of cinema which is as thrilling as it is touching.

And it is credit to Jackson that his many characters seldom, if ever, get lost amid the very special effects, making the second and third instalments a must-see when they are released over the next two Christmas periods.

For anyone who doesn't yet know, The Fellowship of the Ring begins the trilogy as shy young Hobbit, Frodo Baggins (enigmatically played by Elijah Wood) inherits a ring, only to find that it possesses a terrible evil which threatens the whole of Middle Earth.

Enlisting the help of a fellowship of hobbits, men, a wizard (Ian McKellen's wise old Gandalf), a dwarf and an elf, Frodo must travel across Middle Earth to the Crack of Doom to destroy the ring forever, all the while chased by sinister orcs, faceless, black-cloaked ringwraiths and their evil master, Sauron.

It is the age-old story of good versus evil, of friendship, loyalty, courage and self-sacrifice against overwhelming odds and it makes for a riveting three hours in the cinema.

But anyone expecting a blockbuster in the traditional sense of the word - light-hearted thrills, a happy ending, etc - may get a little more than they were expecting. The Fellowship of the Ring is a far darker epic which even boasts a downbeat conclusion in order to set itself up for the next movies. It's rather like watching The Empire Strikes Back without seeing Star Wars in that it arrives with a heavy back story (The Hobbit came first) and contains plenty of surprises, particularly in its last third.

It is to the movie's credit, however, that it can already be likened to such a classic (for classic is what it will instantly become) given that most recent blockbusters which have arrived under the weight of so much expectation have largely failed to deliver or become embraced by critics.

But in look and performances, The Fellowship really delivers and Jackson can be proud of his considerable achievement. Filmed in New Zealand, the landscapes are as enchanting as many of the effects, making this a technically outstanding piece of work, as well as a deeply affecting human one, which works well on an emotional level.

Of the actors, Wood and Sean Astin (as Frodo's best friend and loyal protector, Sam) strike a genuinely moving friendship which forms the core of the proceedings, while Sir Ian McKellen makes for a beguiling and totally lovable Gandalf. Sean Bean, as sceptical Fellowship member Boromir; John Rhys-Davies, as a stout-hearted but quick-tempered Dwarf; Orlando Bloom, as the Elf, Legolas, who is lethal with sword and bow, and Cate Blanchett, as Galadriel, the all-powerful Elf-Queen, all make their mark, as does Christopher Lee as the suitably sinister evil wizard, Saruman (his fight with Gandalf rates among many highpoints).

But the real stars of the piece are Viggo Mortensen, tremendous fun as the mysterious swordsman Aragorn (a hero in the Han Solo mode), and the deliciously cool ringwraiths, whose presence throughout the first half of the film sends a special tingle down the spine. They look destined to command a special place in movie baddie folklore.

The very young may find much of its darker content too violent and way too scary, while there are lulls in the proceedings as the plot gets explained which may not be to everyone's taste, but after a summer filled with big budget disappointments, it is nice to be able to report that for fans of epic cinema and great stories well told, this is the stuff that dreams are made of.