Saturday 15 October 2022

Series Review: Lord of the Rings – The Rings of Power


Prime Video's expensive Lord of the Rings show has just wrapped its first season; but is Rings of Power deserving of its lofty price tag?  

Set thousands of years before Peter Jackson's two trilogies, The Rings of Power covers Tolkien's Second Age; a time of peace that is interrupted by the rise of the Dark Lord Sauron and the forging of an alliance between Elves and Men. 

Right from the first episode, it's clear that there's scope to spare. Showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay understand that to sustain the story over eight lengthy episodes and beyond, they need to establish a suite of storylines and a sprawling ensemble cast straight out of the gate.

There's a host of plucky harfoots (basically hobbits); Nori (Markella Kavenagh), Poppy (Megan Richards), Marigold (Sara Zwangobani), Sadoc (Lenny Henry) and so on. A village of downtrodden Men in the Southlands, led Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) and her elven buddy Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova), the regal Men of Numenor, including Queen Miriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) and Elendil (Lloyd Owen), and a duo of gruff dwarves, Prince Durin (Owain Arthur) and his wife Disa (Sophia Nomvete).

Sitting at the centre of this ensemble is the show's protagonist, Morfydd Clark's Galadriel, as well as Robert Aramayo's Elrond. Together with Charles Edwards' Celebrimbor and Benjamin Walker's High King Gil-Galad, there's a big elvish contingent here, so expect plenty of pointy ears, flowing robes and tongue-twister dialogue. 

We're plunged right into the midst of this new vision of Middle-Earth; much like that first season of Game of Thrones, there's lot of competing plotlines, lore to pour over and vast distances to cover. Unlike Thrones of course, Tolkien's world is a lot more hopeful and sincere, more concerned with high fantasy ideas than taxation policy or whatever they debate in those Small Council meetings. So it's both complementary and counter-programming to House of the Dragon, which is much darker and political. 

What's new and interesting about Rings of Power though, is how the showrunners have interwoven a 'mystery box' element to its plot. Galadriel is seeking the last remnants of darkness, Morgoth and Sauron. We're kept in the dark (pun intended) over Sauron's true identity, whereabouts and motivations, but there are a handful of curious characters who could be the Dark Lord himself. The same goes for a character called The Stranger (Daniel Weyman), who falls from the sky and finds himself in the care of the Harfoots. Who he is, where he comes from and his true purpose remain a mystery for much of the season.

Naturally, when you have so many interlocking plots, there are going to be some that bang and some that flop. Personally, I really enjoyed everything with Galadriel, Halbrand and Numenor, as well as the Southlands plot with Bronwyn and Arondir. Elrond's storyline with Durin and Disa is a little drawn out, while the Harfoots are wisely used sparingly. 

The Rings of Power's trump card is its visual effects and production value. It's not hyperbole to say that this show looks like eight really slick films that are being beamed into our homes every week. The sets and landscapes (much of this is filmed in a studio, yeah, but there's also some great location shooting) are grand and luscious, costumes and weaponry are detailed and intricate. There's a lot of love for the world and its lore that's wormed its way into every nook and cranny of the production. 

If, like me, you're a diehard fan of Jackson's vision of Middle-Earth, Rings of Power may take a little getting used to. The look and feel isn't the same, but they've done a good job of evoking the feel and vibe of Tolkien. Bear McCreary's score isn't as memorable as Howard Shore's iconic leitmotifs from Jackson's films, but it does the job – I can already see myself revisiting it when I'm working or writing in the future. 

I think my biggest complaint is the pacing and the dialogue. All of these episodes exceed an hour, and it's just unnecessary and (sometimes) a bit boring. It certainly doesn't help that most of the often cliche-ridden dialogue feels derivative of literally any other form of high fantasy. 

I also think the lack of name actors is a sore point; the biggest name in the cast is probably Morfydd Clark, and she's not exactly a household name. Perhaps they wanted to focus on the characters rather than the actors themselves, but it couldn't hurt to throw a couple recognisable British thesps in there – y'know a Keeley Hawes or a Rupert Friend. 

I'll be back for season two; the finale actually sets up a more straightforward show that isn't shrouded in secrets and mysteries. With the battle lines more clearly drawn, maybe the narrative thrust will be stronger and more compelling going forward. If they can marry that with the already stellar visuals, then this has the potential to be up there with the best genre fare on TV. 

All eight episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power are streaming on Prime Video now.

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