The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
The first two episodes of Amazon Prime Video's ambitious Tolkien prequel series herald an impressive narrative full of grandeur and a sprawling cast of engaging characters.
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After six movies based on two books by J.R.R. Tolkien running close to a total of 20 hours in their extended versions, I’m sure some people are bewildered by the prospect of an 8-episode television show with even more adventures involving elves, hobbits, dwarves, orcs, men and other denizens of Middle-earth.
Amazon Prime Video is betting there is still a hunger out there for hifalutin fantasy storytelling, and based on the first two episodes (out of eight) of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” I’m inclined to agree — and am impressed.
It’s tough to assess a show based on only the first 25% of it, but that’s all they’re allowing critics to see for now. Similarly, the season will not all land at once Sept. 2 on the streaming platform, but have new episodes arriving weekly to build momentum and internet chatter.
It was a winning strategy for HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” which also is seeing its own prequel series (review here) running roughly concurrently.
With RoP, showrunners/lead writers J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay are not inventing from whole cloth new lore that did not exist in Tolkien’s writings. Between the hefty LoTR appendices, “The Silmarillion,” “Unfinished Tales” and other bits ‘n’ pieces, Tolkien created an entire dense mythology complete with its own languages and detailed history to draw from.
There’s definitely some coloring in on the margins, but it registers as authentically Tolkien.
The setting is several thousands years before the events in “The Hobbit” and LoTR. It’s a time of peaceful calm after the centuries-long war against Morgoth, one of the mysterious god-like figures from the western land of Valinor that exists as some equivalent of Valhalla/Olympus/Heaven.
The elves hope to eventually return there, and for now only the most select of their number are allowed to pass over. Meanwhile, they reign haughtily over the scattered tribes of Men, who fought alongside Morgoth’s armies of orcs.
I’ll only attempt a partial list of characters as it’s quite sprawling, and some key figures glimpsed in the previews indicate more are set to be introduced in later episodes.
A few are familiar names, if not faces: High Elves Galadriel and Elrond. Here they are still in their youths, not yet risen to their high positions in LoTR, played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson and Robert Aramayo, respectively.
Galadriel is a battle-tested general who’s spent decades seeking signs of Sauron, Morgoth’s chief lieutenant, without much success. Her concerns are dismissed by the elven king, Gil-Galad (Benjamin Walker.) Elrond is a rising politician trying to breach the chasm between his friend and monarch.
He’s also intrigued by the king’s plan to create powerful rings to protect the peace, which are to be forged by Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards), a celebrated smith he’s long admired.
To that end Elrond is dispatched to recruit the dwarves into the effort, owing to his friendship with their prince, Durin (Peter Mullan). He travels to their grand mountain kingdom of Khazad-dûm, and after some old tensions are smoothed out — in the traditional dwarven way, by a contest of smashing rocks with hammers — he meets Durin’s wife, Disa (Sophia Nomvete), a warm presence who appears to figure prominently in the story.
Meanwhile in the southlands, Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) is a dutiful elf soldier who oversees the Men-folk in the area, who are bubbling with a sense of rebellion. He also harbors secret affection for Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), a village healer — star-crossed Elf/Man romances being a recurring theme for Tolkien, a la Beren/Lúthien and Aragorn/Arwen.
Don’t worry, there are hobbits in this story — here called Harfoots and existing as nomadic forest denizens who shy away from contact with all the Bigfolk. The most important appears to be Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), a rare adventurous sort in the mold of Bilbo and Frodo.
Early on, a meteor-like event tears across the sky, raising the attention of most of the key figures. There are signs of a blight spreading across the land, raising fears about the return of evil.
It actually turns out to be a man, whose crash leaves a huge, flaming crater in the forest. He is discovered and befriended by Nori, a strange unnamed bearded man (Daniel Weyman) who is unable to speak and seems to have no memory of himself. I’ve a pretty good guess about his identity, as I’m sure you will, but for now the show is keeping it under tight wraps.
The cast is notably much more diverse than the movies, which drew from Tolkien’s pre-WWII concept of a very lily-white England. It’s warming to see every race made up of wondrous mixed hues.
The first two episodes are still mostly in setting-the-table mode, establishing characters, centers of power and storylines. The forging of the titular rings would appear to occupy the bulk of the first season. But with a reported five total planned — at a cost of about $1 billion — the rise of Sauron and the corruption of the rings seems slated to play out in unhurried grandeur.
It was a curious choice to gather an entire cast of no-name actors. It’s understandable why they chose not to use Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving as Galadriel and Elrond, it being difficult to explain 20 years of wear on the faces of ageless elves. Perhaps they wanted to leave as blank a canvas as possible so as not to color the audience’s expectations.
Certainly, they have not skimped on the production values.
“The Rings of Power” has all the polish and visual splendor of Peter Jackson’s trilogies, from the computer-generated effects to the costumes, makeup and sets. J. A. Bayona (“The Impossible”) directs the first two episodes, and shows a clear eye for balancing fantastical backgrounds with very grounded, empathetic characters.
The action scenes are sharp and kinetically thrilling, as in a seaborne sequence in which Galadriel is menaced by some leviathan, reluctantly partnering with a human man (Maxim Baldry) whose name may ring a bell.
I have to single out for special praise the musical score by Bear McCreary. He doesn’t use any direct melodies from Howard Shore, but manages to evoke the mood and timbre of the earlier movies while creating something entirely new, thrumming and thrilling. I kept re-watching the credits just to hear it again, and have already pre-ordered the CD.
Based on the first slice, “The Rings of Power” is promising to be a worthy addition to the screen world of Tolkien’s majestic imagination.