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Movie Review -- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

My Rating: 10 out of 10

(Spoiler-free until the end where fair warning is given)

Turn on the waterworks. Bring a whole box of Kleenex. ROTK is the glorious emotional crescendo to the Lord of the Rings films; and it will surely bring you to tears. Generations of Tolkien fans know the story -- replete with tragedy, soaring heroism, and the bittersweet partings of their favorite characters. Filmgoers who have not read Tolkien's masterwork will recognize this film as Peter Jackson's masterwork -- and rightly so.

Personally, I feel ROTK is in greater concordance with Tolkien than the prior films. We don't have main characters shifted far from their printed origins (remember Faramir) nor do the hobbits get dragged off to Osgiliath again; so the core fans should be very pleased with this adaptation. The more PJ adheres to the book, the higher his film soars. Granted, his team has done a smashing job putting together all three but this one is special. The director, showing remarkable control over such a huge narrative, knocks the ball out of the park. He and co-screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh have captured the most delicate of emotions previously found only in Tolkien's original; and in this aspect above all others their work should be lauded to the top of the highest mountain. ROTK is a singular triumph.

We have been visiting these characters for years now; and they are familiar to us from repeated viewings on DVD. Just as they have been on a long journey of endurance, so to has the audience been on a similar journey, eager for the largest and most complex story arc in film history to come to a sweeping close. PJ masterfully weaves his film with threads of heart-stopping fury and tender grace, just as Tolkien did 50 years ago. I have learned over time to recognize his directing style, feeling the rhythms of carefully connected scenes as PJ moved the story forward. This film, however, is a magnificent finale -- and like an orchestra conductor with an army of musicians, he gives every phrase of this mythic symphony just the right flourish.

We have seen so much wonderful imagery from the team at WETA, working under Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger, the digital folks under Jim Rygiel, and of course the glorious production design by Oscar winner Grant Major, among others. Bless them and keep them! Not a single frame of film unspools without visual wonder. A special tip of the hat to Alex Funke and Andrew Lesnie for photographing Middle-earth on the large and small scales. You will not find colors or compositions as fine as these. Of course, New Zealand itself is still the star of the show. You've seen the majesty of its savage landscapes -- you have felt the Tookish part in you waking up just a bit the more you watch. I promise you'll want to go there yourself someday, seeking your own intrepid adventure. Call up Vic James at Red Carpet Tours this instant. Trust me on this.

To my mind, Howard Shore's music is a brilliant match for the luminous images. This is his finest showing. Here are beauties which pierce like swords, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis; and Shore clearly understands how emotional connections are made between ear and heart. I swear he deserves another Oscar. If only the Academy will have the good sense to not shut him out of the running this time because of their damnable picky "rules." Well, the fans know better. He deserves our acknowledgment and shall have it in spades. "The Lighting of the Beacons" is a magical euphoria of hope rekindled (yup, that's the point where my eyes first welled up); while the plaintive song "Into the West" allows the angelic Annie Lennox to sing as she has never sung. She carries a melody where sorrow begets strength -- where time stands still at the Grey Havens.

At the end of the day, the heart of this whole endeavor is the story. Music, costumes, and shiny clean CGI never once upstage the epic story -- not once. PJ knows what he is doing, and so do the actors. Now we come to the rich blood flowing through the film's veins, the most nuanced acting of the entire trilogy is here; for these performances carry us through the agony of the heroes' many sacrifices. When we realize what has happened to our wee hobbits during the great War of the Ring, from the verdant Shire to the terrifying Plateau of Gorgoroth -- well, it's too late for us. We are also there right alongside them. The screenwriters have wisely focused the central narrative on Frodo and Sam. Remember that teaser poster image with a ragged, collapsed Frodo being held by Samwise in Mordor? Well, there you have it. That is the soul of ROTK right on that poster. Their struggle against hopelessness is the perfect thematic course to take. All other characters reflect the same struggle in their individual scenes. It all seems to fit so well.

I am in awe at how I responded to this remarkable film. I expected going in that some kind of deeper feelings would surface, but I was not prepared for how completely it would all wash over me.


Several moments of ROTK are worth giving special mention:

Pippin Took finds himself taking center stage in a lot of scenes. I told Billy Boyd at the press junket in Wellington that seeing his performance was brilliant. "You were fantastic. You owned every scene you were in," I said. And I meant it truthfully. Pippin has a terrifying encounter with Sauron via the Palantir, and when Gandalf interrogates him afterward the look on Pippin's face shows layers of terror, guilt, yet also the burning curiosity to look inside the stone just one more time, though he knows it would bring ruin. And much later, where he sings for Denethor in the Citadel of Minas Tirith, the audience I sat with was clearly moved by his intimate voice. My God, it's such a fantastic portrayal of our youngest, most naïve hobbit. But naïve no more. Well done, Billy… well done.

Sean Astin totally rocks. Severity and agony are not the kinds of things we expect to see on Samwise's gentle face. But with the character being pushed to the final throw by Gollum's treachery and the horrors of Mordor, we see everything gentle in him change. Behold the performance of the year. Sean is just stunning here -- he throws himself into the work with such passion. After the Ring is unmade and the two wounded hobbits are awaiting their death on the slopes of Mt. Doom, lava rushing past them, Sam suddenly admits his desire to marry Rosie Cotton. He wants to use his final breath to claim his own emotional ground for himself… a final, miserable regret. After such a long time of ignoring his own needs and emotions in his selfless attendance of Mr. Frodo, it is a shock to hear him openly say this. There is such crushing heartbreak in this utterance. It is the most visceral and honest performance I've yet seen throughout Sean's career.

Frodo is lost to the Ring. Thus Elijah Wood takes us to a place of pain and emptiness. We see the struggle in his soul shown more on the outside -- and it works. Elijah hasn't given us this kind of performance before. He is incredibly skillful at balancing very difficult lines of dialogue that might otherwise sound stilted. And one of the finest shots ever put on film completely belongs to him. After Gwaihir and his brethren gather up the hobbits from the outcropping, we see the churning lava far below Frodo as his body gently sways in the wind. Frodo is finally free of his burden, with both agony and ecstasy written across his face. I will never forget Elijah's amazing performance.

Viggo Mortensen faces his destiny when Lord Elrond brings to him the reforged sword Anduril. His challenge is to command the Army of the Dead, making the final declaration that he is the King, the true heir of Isildur. Viggo has a shining light in his eyes when he realizes that Arwen has given up everything for him, that the world of Men will indeed succumb to Sauron, and that he must prove himself now, or never. Setting aside his doubts, he truly embraces his birthright. You can hear it in his voice. Although we don't get to see the Houses of the Healing sequence (drat!) where the "hands of a healer" dialogue offer more kingly proof of the true heir, we still have a most compelling line that Aragorn delivers to the hobbits at a key moment: "My friends, you bow down to no one." It is such a magnificent change in him (and far better dialogue than "Let's hunt some Orc").

If you can't get enough of Smeagol/Gollum, then sit back and enjoy another award-deserving performance from Andy Serkis. The opening scenes are all about Smeagol and Deagol, with the two cousins first encountering the Ring. Here we see his full transformation in lurid detail, from a river-folk Hobbit to a horrid creature crawling under the mountains. It is so very sad. And disgusting. And necessary to understanding the psyche of one person being pulled apart by Sauron's will. We are suddenly afraid of what is happening to Frodo as he carries the Ring. It is a completely brutal opening, and sets the tone for the rest of the film -- the stakes are higher and the reality of the Ring's evil more acute.

My favorite moment? Oh come now, that's just not possible. Especially when you have a film with such a cornucopia of brilliant moments. I love the personal victory of Miranda Otto on the Pelennor Fields -- Theoden's death -- the ugly look on Denethor's face when he says aloud to his surviving son that he would have preferred Faramir died instead of Boromir -- the cunning strategy of Gandalf as he takes charge of the city of Minas Tirith -- and the shrill horror of Shelob as she poisons poor Frodo, seemingly to his death. It's really something to see.

If there is any complaint I would make, it seems unfortunate to even mention it. There is a very tight funnel of time between the events after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and the time that Frodo and Sam make their final ascent to Mount Doom. It almost seems that the two hobbits aren't really spending that many days crawling across the volcanic plateau. At this point, I sensed a bit too much editorial trimming (similar problem we had with TTT, but this is just a nit-picky thing). With all my thoughts toward the upcoming Extended Edition DVD, I'm sure we'll see the missing bits put back in. But to wait that long is just a pain. Sigh.

The final parting at the Grey Havens… well, I'm not even going to talk about it. Best you see it for yourselves. The perfect balance of emotions. The perfect ending of the journey. The end of a very long piece of cinema history.

It is immensely satisfying to watch my most beloved book come to life so vibrantly on the big screen. Indeed, part of me wishes it could go on forever.

In most movie theatres around the world, workers have to clean stale popcorn off the floor when an audience leaves. But after ROTK, they'll be collecting many a wet Kleenex instead, filled with many tears. And what greater praise can a filmmaker receive, than to know his audience has been moved with such power?

Much too hasty,

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Past Limbs
An Open Letter to the Screen Actors Guild
Review: The Return of the King
Kingly Proof
For the Love of Arwen
The Atlantis Connection
Noble Is As Noble Does
Send in the Penguins
War! What is it Good For?
In Defense of Philippa Boyens
Movie Review - The Two Towers
The Final Word
Very, Very, Very Impatient
Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit
Finding a Hobbit’s Voice
Conversation with a Newbie
Inside Information
The Silver Lining
Movie Review - Fellowship of the Ring
Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Where the Stars are Strange: Part I
The Spectacular Cannes Footage
Comic-Con International 2001
An Open Letter to Jeffrey Wells
The Shadow of Racism
All About Sam
The Game’s the Thing!
Who’s Spiking Who?
The 2000 Vote: Gandalf or Saruman?
Tolkien’s Greatest Hits
Return to The Furthest Reaches
The Furthest Reaches
True Fans, Truly Obsessed
"Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf"
…And In the Closet Bind Them
Welcome to Merchandising Hell
In Defense of Escapism
Out on a Limb Home


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