Posts Tagged ‘Viggo Mortenson’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally posted December 29th 2002:

As you may have noticed if you’ve read this column before, I go to the cinema rather a lot. And at the cinema I’ve seen films provoke many different responses: most often, cheers when the BBFC title card finally appears after the adverts and trailers (most noticably before Attack of the Clones – and, yes, we all felt slightly embarrassed for doing it once we’d actually seen the film). But also I’ve heard screams (most recently during The Others) and seen people walk out in confusion and/or disgust (that’d be in the middle of David Cronenberg’s Crash). But only once in a British cinema have I seen the audience give a film an ovation as the closing credits started to roll: and that film, as you’ve probably guessed, was Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

I must admit I was a little bit sceptical about this middle bit of Middle Earth, recalling that for quite a long time in the book not much happens – and most of the interesting stuff happens towards the ends of the various stories, which I already knew had been shifted back to next Christmas’ concluding installment. And after the powerhouse opening sequence, briefly reprising the duel at Khazad-Dum before moving on to depict Gandalf (Ian McKellen) putting the smackdown on the Balrog amongst the foundations of the world, my worries seemed briefly founded. This is the entirety of the recap that Jackson provides before plunging us back into the various travails of the different elements of the Fellowship – Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are struggling towards Mordor, alternately stalked and guided by the ruined creature Gollum (a remarkable fusion of actor Andy Serkis and CGI), while Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), having being been grabbed by the Uruk-hai (sounds painful), are being carried off to the clutches of renegade wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) – but not if their comrades Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) have anything to say about it! The movie assumes this is all already clear in the minds of the audience, so the early stages can seem a little unwelcoming. But as time goes on and the rhythm and power of the film seduces the imagination, Jackson unfurls the fullness of his vision, and the result is a heroic fantasy of the highest quality.

All the pleasures of the first film are here again to be enjoyed – Mortenson’s macho posturing and slightly strangulated Numenorean accent, McKellen’s formidable wizard (regenerated in true Dr Who style into a arse-kicking new incarnation), Howard Shore’s majestic score, and much, much more. And there are, of course, new characters and locations by the bucketload – Bernard Hill gives a quietly powerful performance as King Theoden, Miranda Otto lights up the screen as shieldmaiden Eowyn, helplessly drawn to Aragorn (intrigued, no doubt, by the impressive length of his pipe), and Brad Dourif1 oozes unpleasantness as Wormtongue. And while The Two Towers inevitably lacks some of the impact of The Fellowship of the Ring, there are still gobsmacking visuals on a regular basis: armies of darkness on the march, the opening fight sequence, the gates of Mordor grinding open, Nazgul on fell beasts flying over ruined cities…

Even moreso than the first time round, Jackson and his fellow writers have taken liberties with the text in order to make this work cinematically. Most obviously, this film only covers the events in fourteen or so of the twenty chapters in Tolkien’s book (so anyone expecting the abhorrent Shelob to appear, or Pippin and Merry to be reunited with their friends, is in for another year’s wait). The timing and order of events have been significantly rejigged beyond this, though, so that things occurring days apart in the book happen simultaneously at the climax of the film. Personally, I didn’t have too much of a problem with this, but you don’t have to surf too far across the internet to find a message board full of Tolkies seething and screaming their outrage – ‘Peter Jackson is a second-rate director with no imagination and he should be slapped!‘ is one of the milder things I’ve read. It does seem that the more familiar you are with the book, the more likely it is you’ll find something to object to in the movie.

I’m only really a dabbler when it comes to Tolkien but even I think there are needless flaws here and there in this film. The Aragorn-Arwen romance is once again inserted into the film with all the subtlety of a shot from a trebuchet, there’s a pointless subplot about one character being missing presumed dead, and Gimli’s role as the sole source of comic relief in the film perhaps deviates a little too far from the Professor’s vision for my taste. And while Jackson’s decision to shift the last six chapters of the books into film three is doubtless justified, it does mean that many of the most popular characters from Fellowship get surprisingly little screen time in this installment.

But these are minor, minor flaws in what is – to my mind at least – an almost incomprehensibly good film. The above excepted, it delivers on nearly every level – as pure spectacle, most obviously, but also in terms of the performances, the handling of the themes, the production design, the score… and most of all, in terms of Jackson’s contribution. The script deftly juggles anything up to five different plotlines at once, while still managing to evoke the story’s Shakespearean parallels (Henry V, Macbeth, and King Lear are all alluded to). The progress of the siege of Helm’s Deep is expertly handled and always clear. But his direction encompasses the moving, personal stories as skilfully as the epic battles – frequently switching from one to the other within the same scene.

Short of Peter Jackson dropping the ball in a major way in the course of the next year (or going under a bus), I’m certain that – when complete – The Lord of the Rings will come to be seen as the greatest achievement in the history of popular cinema. As things currently stand – well, longterm readers may be forgiven a sense of deja vu, but The Two Towers is quite literally awe-inspiring cinema, and, if there’s any justice in this world, the recipient of next year’s Academy Award for Best Picture.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 27th 2001:

Another point on this, the question that dominates my email: the adaptation of masterpieces from one medium to another is as old as literature. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are re-workings of stories, poems or written history. When I moved Richard III from stage to screen, I was determined to make a good film in honour of a great play. Had I left every scene and line of the text intact in the movie, it would not have been a good one. Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, my favourite version of the Macbeth saga, distorts Shakespeare to spectacular effect. The play which inspired it remains intact. – Sir Ian McKellen

For a critic, even a pretend one like me, there is only ever one ambition: to write about the subject accurately, entertainingly and persuasively enough to have some impact on the way the reader views it – maybe even enough to influence whether or not they decide to see it all. Sometimes success is, perhaps, achieveable. And sometimes… well, this week I’m looking at Chris Columbus’ Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and faced with such a couple of cinematic colossii, whose metaphorical ankles I stand no higher than, it quickly becomes obvious that I’m staring defeat in the face.

Both these films are based on the opening volumes of well-loved fantasy series1. Both have been eagerly awaited. Both feature powerful casts and striking effects-work. Both look very certain to muscle their way up the all-time box office takings chart. Obviously, they are – superficially, at least – very similar.

And consider the storylines: the story of an ordinary, unassuming young orphan, living with relatives. After he discovers the remarkable significance of his inheritance he is forced into a journey of discovery. His ultimate opponent is a dark lord whose power is resurgent – his greatest ally a venerable wizard of formidable power, though there are friends both large and small to be found along the way. At the end the Death Star blows up. So, yes, both stories derive from the same tradition of heroic fantasy. But the way in which the stories are told for the screen couldn’t be more different.

Lord of the Rings has a large cast, containing many well-known faces: Ian McKellen – who’s fast becoming one of my favourite performers – as the wizard Gandalf, a magisterial Christopher Lee as his counterpart Saruman, Liv Tyler as the Elf maiden Arwen, Ian Holm as the legendary Bilbo2, and Sean Bean as the mercurial warrior Boromir. But all seem to have been cast solely on merit, just as with the lesser-known actors in other key roles – Elijah Wood as Frodo, the ringbearer, Viggo Mortenson as the stoic ranger Strider, and Sean Astin as the faithful Sam Gamgee, to name but three. (There are also a couple of well-known names rendered unrecognisable by their prosthetic make-up, particularly John Rhys-Davies as Gimli the dwarf.) The performances are uniformly excellent, at the very least: Wood is moving as Frodo, and as the wizard, McKellen is a towering presence.

With Harry Potter, though, it was ever-so-slightly like watching people in free-fall fighting over an insufficient number of parachutes. Every few minutes, it seemed, someone like Julie Walters or John Hurt would roll up, do a show-stopping cameo and then clear off. Now most of these people were also very good, but the overall effect was a bit distracting – a combination of ‘I wonder who’s on next?’ and ‘is that all they’re actually doing?’ Robbie Coltrane emerged from the scrum with most success, with Alan Rickman and Richard Harris not far behind. The troika of child stars were rather variable, I thought, and under-used (dialogue seemed to consist wholly of exclamations of ‘Whoa!’ for long stretches of the film). Rupert Brint was good as Ron, but as Harry, Daniel Radcliffe was a bit too passive (and looked like a strange hybrid of Walter the Softy and Liam Gallagher).

I think Lord of the Rings scores over Harry Potter in the visual department, too: admitted it has the bonus of New Zealand standing in for Middle Earth, to awesome effect, but even so I found my jaw continually dropping open at the sheer beauty and power of the images on the screen – a brief but impressive glimpse of Sauron’s fastness, Barad-Dur, the manic activity in the pits below Isengard, or the infernal might of the Balrog (a stunning creation). It’s the most fully-realised fantasy world in many years. Harry Potter, of course, is set in a version of our own world, but even so the special effects, while respectable, are not as convincing as one might have hoped for (the Quidditch match is particularly disappointing).

It should be obvious by now that I rate Lord of the Rings a good deal higher than Harry Potter. And the main reason for this has nothing to do with the concerns outlined above. Harry Potter was made in consultation with the author of the books, JK Rowling, who apparently had the power of veto over all aspects of the production. Probably due to this, and also from a desire to appeal to the widest possible audience, director Chris Columbus has made a visually rather bland film that sticks very, very close to the book – too close, in fact. The result is a film that frequently seems unfocussed and a little self-indulgent and is certainly at least thirty minutes too long – Lord of the Rings is a longer film, but doesn’t feel overlong the way Harry Potter does. It’s not a bad film, by any means, but by staying too close to the original text it does Rowling’s remarkable prose no justice.

By contrast, Peter Jackson takes liberties with Tolkien that will make any purist blanch. There are many substantial changes – sections of the book have been removed and new material inserted in their place. But all the changes serve to make the story work for the screen, as a film in its own right. The memorable-but-superfluous visit to Tom Bombadil is gone completely. Glorfindel’s role is carried out by Arwen, to provide a suitable introduction for her. The pursuit of the hobbits by the Black Riders is suitably chilling and relentless. Frodo’s encounter with Galadriel (an ethereal Cate Blanchett) is truly startling. Most significantly, Saruman’s role has been substantially beefed up, and he and his hench-thing Lurtz provide a physical personification of evil lacking from the text. And throughout the whole enterprise, the key themes of Tolkien’s work – the corrupting influence of absolute power, the conflict between mechanisation and the natural world, and the power of true friendships such as the one between Sam and Frodo – are emphasised and explored.

It’s by no means perfect, though. Longeurs threaten in Rivendell and again in Lothlorien. The romance between Aragorn and Arwen doesn’t really justify its inclusion. There’s no real sense of the topography of Middle Earth, but short of handing out maps in the foyer I can’t think of a solution to this. The Professor himself would be appalled by the Celticisation of much of his creation. And the end is, perhaps inevitably, a little anticlimactic. But it’s still a magnificent achievement.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a superior, though overlong, children’s adventure. It’s also a film with a mountain to climb. The Lord of the Rings is that mountain, and The Fellowship of the Ring is an epic in every sense of the word – and, if there’s any justice in this world, the recipient of next years’ Academy Award for Best Picture.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 26th 2004:

Les: ‘Other than the Cresta Run, name a dangerous race.’
Contestant: ‘Arabs!’
– Famous but quite probably apocryphal exchange on Family Fortunes

Hi-diddle-di-range, an actor’s life is strange. One minute there you are, plugging profitably along minding your own business as solid character support and the occasional love-interest in chick flicks, and then suddenly Stuart Townsend drops out, your agent phones, and you find yourself on a plane to New Zealand to play one of the lead roles in the greatest achievement in the history of popular cinema. You are suddenly a star – an icon, even. Where do you go from here?

Well, the answer appears to be: Joe Johnston’s Hidalgo, a Middle-East-meets-Wild-West romp which marks Viggo Mortensen’s first attempt at a post-Lord of the Rings career. I have to say that judged solely on the basis of this movie, the omens for Mortenson’s future career shade slightly more towards the likes of Mark Hamill than Harrison Ford.

Supposedly based on a true story (a claim which has already provoked much controversy, and to which I will only respond with: Sh’yeah, course it is!), this is the tale of half-Native American cavalry courier Frank Hopkins (Mortensen) and his horse Hidalgo. Guilt over his role in late-19th century atrocities against the native tribes leads Hopkins to end up a drunken corporate shill and entertainer (he is presumably in the next booth to Tom Cruise’s character from The Last Samurai, who – horse excepted – has a virtually identical back-story).

However, a chance for redemption appears when some Arabs turn up and get snotty: Hopkins’ boss, Buffalo Bill, has billed his horse as the world’s greatest endurance racer, which they take some exception to. He is invited to participate in the Ocean of Fire, a big-money high-stakes race across Arabia. Not entirely surprisingly he says yes, setting the stage for all sorts of rootin’-tootin’, dodgy racial stereotyping, and long shots of sand-dunes.

Nearly all of Hidalgo is quite daft and some bits of it are exceedingly silly indeed, but for all that he makes the least convincing part-Native American in the history of the universe, Mortensen’s legions of fans will probably not find much to complain about. Perhaps intentionally, in this film he inhabits terrain not entirely different to that he covered as Aragorn – hanging around in tents trying to sweet-talk the disapproving father of his latest conquest, looking intense on horseback, giving it a bit in the fight scenes, and so on. He does mumble rather a lot though.

Those less partial to the Scandinavian heart-throb may find Hidalgo slightly harder going. This is rather a long film, mainly because it takes its time getting anywhere. The first pre-race forty-five minutes sets the scene rather agreeably and atmospherically, setting up the characters and story and such like. But rather than exploding into life at this point the race itself turns out to be really rather dull, consisting of endless shots of our man riding rather slowly over sand-dunes in silhouette. The only part of the film with any oomph to it is a spot of bandit-fighting and princess-rescuing that Viggo goes in for during half-time in the race – which it must be said is blatantly only there to perk things up a bit, and has the regrettable consequence of bloating the running-time up even more. Things never quite grind completely to a halt, but this is still the kind of film where you could pop out to the concessions stand at any number of points and come back without having lost the plot in any way.

But it’s colourful and has an odd sort of novelty, and the cast is fairly good: Hollywood Rent-a-Sheikh Omar Sharif pops up as, guess what, a crusty old Bedou with a heart of gold, and Louise Lombard is rather swish as a bloodstock-crazy British aristo. Malcolm McDowell pops up very briefly near the start, but regrettably doesn’t hand around long – clearly double-booked to eat some other scenery in a different film. The cinematography looks nice even if some of the CGI effects are a bit jarring.

Of course, any film about a cowboy heading off to the Middle East and sorting out all the Arabs does not have go out of its way these days to acquire a (probably unlooked-for) topical subtext. To be fair to Hidalgo it doesn’t look to make any sort of serious point at all, but it is interesting that the film’s total reverence for Native Americans is in no way replicated in its attitude towards Arabs, many of whom get a pretty raw deal from the script. I’m not entirely sure as to whether or not the film’s references to the race passing through Iraq are anachronistic or not, but either way they are wont to make even the most casual viewer draw comparisons.

Hidalgo is a rather old-fashioned film struggling to assimilate a very modern sort of message, about how who you are is more important than where you’ve come from. It’s a bit of a mixed bag all told, and outstays its welcome quite considerably. But it’s jolly, unobjectionable fare, even if it could really do with a bit less Viggo and a bit more vigour.

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