The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (Prime Video) is likely to prove divisive, not least depending on whether you watch it on a big TV or squint at its splendor on a phone or laptop. It is so rich and gorgeous that it is easy to spend the first episode simply gawping at the landscapes, as it swoops and swooshes between the lands of elves and dwarves, humans and harfoots. This is TV that is made for big screens, although surely destined to be watched on smaller ones. It is so cinematic and grand that it makes House of the Dragon look as if it has been cobbled together on Minecraft.
This makes it difficult to judge The Rings of Power as an ordinary series, because so much about it is extraordinary. It is Tolkien, which means this world is already venerated and beloved by so many, whether in the form of the books, Peter Jackson’s films or both. There is an extraordinary weight of expectation before any viewer presses play. Add to that the fact that this is reportedly the most expensive TV series ever made – $465m for eight episodes – and it is tough to view this as just another show. It is an event, a spectacle, but if it isn’t entirely perfect, does that make it a failure?
The first 10 minutes of the opening episode set a fantastically busy, robust pace and tone. It begins calmly and beautifully, with a very young Galadriel sailing a paper ship in “the undying lands” of Valinor. Then it puts its foot down sharply, racing through centuries of history and war and, crucially, the overthrow of the dark lord Morgoth. I am usually wary of having to read primers before embarking on a new series – it should stand alone – but here it is probably helpful to do a small amount of homework.
By the time it settles, in the twilight of the Second Age, Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) is the commander of the northern armies, the Warrior of the Wastelands, still hunting Morgoth’s lieutenant, Sauron, on a hunch, centuries after most elves believe him has been defeated.
I love Galadriel the fighter. She is valiant, flawed and haughty, as bloody-minded as she is brilliant, scarred by the horrors of war. If that doesn’t sound like much fun, wait till you see what she does to a snow troll.
If the elves bring the intensity, then there is plenty of earthy light and joy in the harfoots, Tolkien’s predecessors to the hobbits, who are preparing for their seasonal migration. The young harfoots drill for berries and frolic in the mud, their elders (including Lenny Henry) on hand to explain how everything fits together, via some not-unwelcome exposition about who dwells where and what land they protect. The opening episode also introduces us to the Southlands, where elves and humans coexist uneasily amid decades of resentment in the aftermath of war.
It takes until the second episode, and the arrival of the dwarves, for the immersive feeling to flourish – that sense that this is a fully realized world worth jumping into wholeheartedly. The dwarves anchor it and temper some of the show’s more pompous instincts. It is not much of a spoiler to say that the initial idyll is soon shattered. The elves’ insistence that “our days of war are over” is more of a dream than cold political analysis. There are hints from the start that decay is in the air and it does not take long for those hints to grow into sirens, bellowing out warnings at great volume. When it gets frightening, it is genuinely scary. Towards the end of episode two, it is breathlessly tense and far more gruesome than I anticipated.
I have a couple of small reservations. On occasion, there is a whiff of “smell-the-fart” acting, which is perhaps hard to avoid when every other line is a poker-faced aphorism such as: “A dog may bark at the moon, but he cannot bring it down.” The pace, too, is a little all-or-nothing. It either races through astonishing action scenes, or lingers on a single conversation or meaningful look. But these are quibbles and, in the end, the spectacle wins. This is enormously enjoyable TV, a cinematic feast. Now, I just need to find someone with a huge telly to let me watch with them.