‘The Rings of Power’ Understood The Assignment

A still from 'The Rings of Power'. Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) is shown centre frame, wearing a full suit of ornate silver armour. She has white skin and ice blond hair that is plaited down over her right shoulder. Over her other shoulder she carries a large gilted sword in a carrier. Behind her a village burns, a fireball can be seen blurry in the background and villagers look on aghast.
Prime Video

How do you create a sequel prequel to something like The Lord of the Rings? How do you expand a universe like Middle-earth, while paying homage to its original conception? How do you achieve a satisfying follow-up to a masterpiece in an era obsessed with remakes and shallow copies? Well, I don’t have the answer, but the first two episodes of The Rings of Power seem on the right path. It’s not perfect by any means, but if it fills you with the excitement and wonder you felt watching Peter Jackson’s adaptations as a child, or reading Tolkien’s novels even younger, then who could complain?

The story begins with a far younger Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) than the one we know from the classic trilogy, on a quest to find Sauron, the evil sorcerer thought defeated decades before in the battle that her brother never returned from. Though some presume her paranoid, it becomes increasingly clear that her fears are not unfounded. As things go bump in the night across Middle-earth, a new ensemble of heroes and adventurers emerge to face the great evil growing in power.

The timing of the Rings’ release leaves an elephant in the room; the inevitable comparisons with the recent House of the Dragon, another sequel prequel to an overwhelmingly popular fantasy story onscreen. Disclaimer: I haven’t seen HBO’s new flick, but with my old love of Game of Thrones and my limited awareness of the new show, it seems like both shows had the ‘no expense spared’ attitude, but while GoT felt decadent, Rings just feels rich. This show is destined to be bound by comparisons. Those of the more wry readers will have noticed the introduction to this review conveniently ignores The Hobbit prequels that were perfectly enjoyable, but ultimately disappointing and forgettable. Recent history has proven that studio execs aiming for ‘bigger, bolder, better’ isn’t necessarily what viewers want.

A still from 'The Rings of Power'. Marigold Brandyfoot (Sara Zwangobani) and Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) are pictured in a mid-shot. It is night and their path is only lit with a large lantern carried by Nori. Both girls are spooked by something and turning back on themselves with their mouths hung open in shock. Both girls wear a raggedy shirt in a pale tan linen with similar coloured oversized skirts. Their matted hair is plaited and wild, with twigs and flowers woven into the heap on top their heads.
Prime Video

What makes this show, albeit the first two episodes, so wonderous and endearing is the balance between very serious world-changing quests, headed primarily by Galadriel and some star-crossed human/elf lovers (Nazanin Boniadi and Ismael Cruz Cordova), and the classic Legolas/Gimli humour from the squabbles of Elrond (Robert Aramayo) and Durin IV (Owain Arthur), and the charming folly of the harfoots (this show’s hobbits) following their curiosity to troubling ends. Sound familiar? In many ways, the first episodes promise healthy comparison and parallel with the classic trilogy, and yet watching it feels just as new and exciting as ever.

A welcome change is the many women at the heart of the story, be it Morfydd Clark’s ethereal Galadriel, the impulsive but courageous harfoot Nori (Markella Kavenagh), the human healer Bronwyn, or the various other supporting women. While Lord of the Rings is dear to many of us, it has to be acknowledged that Tolkien didn’t tend to put women front and centre (even Arwen barely speaks a word in the novels until her marriage to Aragon at the end of the third book). The Rings of Power is also the first to feature several actors of colour across its cast, pulling this classic tale firmly into the present for all audiences.

Where many prequel sequels fall down in trying to construct the backstory of beloved characters retrospectively, Rings (so far anyway) allows Galadriel, Elrond, and a handful of other legendary figures from Middle-earth, to have their own lease of life in this chapter. Another symptom is the near impossible tale of trying to retcon a story into fitting correctly into an ending the audience knows is coming; we know Sauron is going to plunge Middle-earth back into war and darkness before this show reaches its end. But the light is still so bright in these characters, and we can’t help but feel even more anxious about their victory. Rings doesn’t need the constant threat of violence or assault to keep up its tension as we’ve grown accustomed to in the epic fantasies of recent years.

Prime Video

It’s a real shame that the modern VFX is often more noticeable than the classic trilogy; the scenes between harfoots and humans particularly can’t help but feel jarring with the slightly iffy CGI, though these artists truly come into their stride with the likes of colossal sea monsters and breath-taking landscapes. It also bears mentioning that the show likely had the same challenges in pacing that Jackson’s films had, with many scenes feeling pretty trimmed and tension rising and falling sometimes unpredictably during episodes, not that it makes it any less enjoyable.

The Rings of Power has shown itself to be a classic high fantasy or epic proportions, effortlessly beautiful and boundlessly imaginative. What is perhaps most impressive is that it understood the story it set out to tell, and is content with focusing all its efforts on that. No flashy CGI if it isn’t serving the story, no self-gratuitous battle scenes, nothing is there a moment longer than it needs to be to move the characters forward. With the likes of HBO, Disney and Netflix making the rounds with epic fantasy dramas, Prime Video just said hold my ale.

The Rings of Power is available to stream now exclusively on Prime Video, with a new episode every Friday.

by Daisy Leigh-Phippard

Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s LabyrinthThe HandmaidenFrida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on TwitterLetterboxd and Instagram.

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