Markella Kavenaugh as Nori in "The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power"

Exquisite — “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”

An elven warrior refuses every call to give up her quest hunting a dark power. A nomadic hobbit keeps safe a man who fell from the sky. An elven diplomat tries to broker peace with dwarves in pursuit of an architectural dream. A human woman and her elven lover are split apart by creatures seeking an ancient tool of power. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” follows a far more thoughtful approach to its storytelling than I anticipated. Character comes first in beautiful ways. Flowing dialogue creates dissonance between the achingly detailed halls of fantasy that describe a culture and the complex, messy, often painful realities that define it.

The scene that ought to tell you whether this is your kind of show or not is early on. Galadriel and Elrond – elves who are here hundreds of years younger than the events in “The Lord of the Rings” – debate between knowledge and theory. Galadriel is a warrior obsessed with the idea the dark lord Sauron survives and awaits his enemies’ complacency. She wants to hunt him, even if she has no support in doing so. She’s met by Elrond’s reasonable arguments. He theorizes on what the consequences are if she’s right, and if she’s wrong. They are friends and empathize with each other – even recognize how one sees what the other cannot. Galadriel’s translating what she knows and can evidence against her obsession and PTSD – albeit conveyed in a removed, elven way. Elrond is trying to tell her she’s fought enough, that even if her fears are true, others can pick up that fight and continue it. Galadriel’s concern is about duty as an ethic, Elrond’s is about responsibility as a practical concern. They talk in a hall of monuments, each hero carved from wood as they looked in death. The two friends feel empathy for each other, they understand each other, they care about each other’s thoughts, and they trust each other – yet they’re each talking past the other in a core way. This is translated in flowing, flowery speech full of metaphor by actors hitting every note. It’s the kind of character-intensive work that “The Rings of Power” is absolutely landing an hour an episode.

Some fantasy meets you halfway, acknowledging that it’ll be a little cheesy and at the end of the day, we’re all just along for a fun ride. Other fantasy swings for the fences and looks to convince you of every world-building element and detail. Many of these fall short because if they falter even once, an intricately woven cinematic tapestry starts to unwind. We’re only two episodes in to “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”, so there’s still time for that to happen – but thus far it looks like they’ve nailed every element.

We follow Galadriel’s quest in defiance of her elven lord. We also follow a mischievous Harfoot hobbit named Nori, Elrond himself as he engages in elven politics, and a tense situation between humans and elves at the far reaches of civilization. We don’t yet know how these various threads will come together, but each story is captivating.

Is it true to J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision? Does it land every detail in the right place? Dunno. I don’t mean to be irreverent in saying that, it’s just…we have Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy already, one we love in large part for the places where it folds the story into something more elegantly film-ready. It makes some big changes, and we mostly understand why. I’m not a “Silmarillion” lore fiend, so I can’t tell you how loyal “The Rings of Power” is to its source material, but Tolkien’s original vision for “The Silmarillion” was for it to disagree with itself, to be a mythology brought forth by many writers of his own fictional creation, each writing in a different style and arriving at different conclusions. It was edited together into something more consistent by his son Christopher and assisting authors after J.R.R.’s death, from an even wider array of drafts and notes that go through many changing versions. In some ways, the published “Silmarillion” itself isn’t necessarily consistent with Tolkien’s vision of having various versions that could each be interpreted as part of the truth. If Tolkien’s goal was for it to be taken as a mythology viewed from multiple angles on what could be understood as truth or not, then there is no correct interpretation. It’s purposefully a framework. As long as you’re in the ballpark, you’re watching the right game.

That leaves me having to do what I was going to do anyway, and judge the thing on its own. Is it good? Through two episodes, it’s phenomenal, bolstered by some gorgeous writing, stunning cinematography, and a pretty restrained implementation of visual effects given that the series is saturated in them. The best part is the acting – not just the performances, but the way they’re presented and given proper space within the story. “The Rings of Power” is smart enough to back down on everything else when it comes to letting the actors and writing carry it.

Some of the dialogue in this is gorgeously and poetically written. There’s a turn of phrase that treads the line of becoming too generic-fantasy in one or two places, but it overwhelmingly hits the mark and there are far more moments where the use of metaphor is striking and moving.

We’ve come to understand “The Lord of the Rings” on film largely through Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy. There is a sense of being overwrought in places, of being as dramatic as possible and trusting that the director and actors can lean into that hard enough to sell those embellishments. It’s always risky because the only thing past that is camp. Yet if you’re able to keep that sense of elevated theatrical drama on track, the whole thing can blossom as an entire world you get to watch take shape.

To do this correctly means creating an actors’ playground first and foremost. For all the towering scenery and sumptuous visual effects, every scene focuses in on the characters and what they’re doing in a specific place. It doesn’t matter that the story just swept hundreds of miles across the world, it matters that this character is here now, and that the actor believes in what they’re doing so hard that we’re given no choice but to do the same.

Morfydd Clark’s Galadriel and Markella Kavenagh’s Nori deserve particular praise, albeit in nearly opposite ways. Clark’s Galadriel elf warrior is a driven powerhouse, translating concepts of PTSD in a very elven way that can feel familiar and alien by turn. She feels constantly unstill, as if being caged in her body or in this place is an untenable necessity. It’s an intriguing but consistent turn with what we’ve seen of Galadriel in other projects. It’s also incredibly refreshing after so many elves with light, nondescript English theater accents to have one with that Welsh pronunciation and accent shining through. That’s what Tolkien based the Elven language and culture on, so when we talk about things in terms of accuracy, this is at least one element “The Rings of Power” gets right that other adaptations have failed.

Kavenagh’s Nori is a wide-eyed hobbit youth who tests boundaries and wants to see the wider world. She’s impish in that she misbehaves and wanders afield, but when she gets others to join her, she’s responsible in that she’s the one who watches out for them. The “youth who wants to see the world” archetype can often feel too familiar, but the blend of early hobbit culture with Nori’s own ability to manage chaos makes her feel more capable from the start than a typical child thrown into a hero’s journey.

Robert Aramayo’s young Elrond took a second to grow on me, but it’s a joy to see how measured and diplomatic he is. “The Rings of Power” seems to understand that yes, sure, an action set piece now and then is nice, but what’s really exciting is the diplomatic jousting of an elf and dwarf through competitive feats of traditional rock-breaking. That’s plot moved by an element of world-building, and it’s what sells the fantasy in fantasy. People stabbing each other with swords? We did that for a couple thousand years in the real world. Diplomacy through a rock-splitting duel? Now you’ve got my attention.

There’s always a risk when handling so many different groups of characters, each of them encountering yet new groups of characters who add on even more story threads. Comfy, warm fantasy blanket though it may be, “The Wheel of Time” gets wobbly every time it tries to balance two plotlines at the same time. “The Witcher” takes two plotlines as a challenge to make them feel like 12, a willfully obstinate strength of the show I love, but definitely an acquired taste. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” has at least four core narratives, and a variety of intersecting ones, with none of them going the same direction. Yet none of them feel rushed, and none of them feel as if they distract from or confuse the others. It’s easy and enthralling to understand and follow. Despite the vast amount of lore spilled open and referred to throughout the show, none of it feels like homework. Everything is crystal clear, paced well, and they’re finding the emotional core of each lead character very readily.

We’re two episodes in; can it continue this way? I hope so. Showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay clearly understand that what’s interesting about “The Lord of the Rings” is its world and how it works. The action is icing on the cake. It comes after the fantasy iconography, which comes after the plot, all of which sits atop these characters and their motivations. It’s brilliant and beautiful.

The one thing that gives me some pause is that these first two episodes had an absolute knockout director helming them. Juan Antonio Bayona is responsible for “A Monster Calls”, “The Impossible”, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (the second best “Jurassic [area]” movie), a couple episodes of the excellent “Penny Dreadful”, and my pick for best horror film of the last two decades, the Spanish-language “El Orfanato”. He has a hugely empathetic eye for character amidst genre spectacle.

The upcoming directors are Wayne Yip and Charlotte Brandstrom. Yip’s directed on “The Wheel of Time”, Brandstrom on “The Witcher”. They’re quality directors, but Bayona is one of the best (and most overlooked) out there. Can the showrunners and these other directors keep the focus on the actors and writers the way Bayona’s helped establish? I really hope so, because if that’s the case you’ve got one of the best shows of the year and the best live-action fantasy going right now.

You can watch “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” on Amazon.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

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