QUICKBEAM'S OUT ON A LIMB:
Movie Review - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
My Rating: 9 out of 10
Last year at about this time, fans on the Net were a nervous lot. All of us were wondering the same thing: could Peter Jackson really pull it off? Would his opening film, The Fellowship of the Ring, be glorious cinema or a misfire? Well, now, the proof is in the pudding. His work has been remarkably successful both artistically and commercially; indeed PJ was lauded to the top of the highest mountain and the fans are all lined up, eager for more. The only way to go is forward. If you enjoyed Fellowship as I did, and have now come to believe in the power of PJ's transcendent film direction, you are in for a grand time with The Two Towers. It is a triumph indeed.
However, you must be warned this movie is different.... it feels different.... the skies have darkened and doom hangs in the air.
The despair of the human soul does not make for popular entertainment. We would rather run away from the darkness of our own hearts, the feelings of hopelessness and isolation. Most forms of pop culture distract us from our troubles. Especially the output of Hollywood, the glamour of Tinseltown, where movies take us away from our lives -- if only for a little while.
But in this amazing second installment of the LOTR trilogy, PJ asks the audience to sit down and deal with despair. Middle-earth is darker and more disturbed this time around. There is no Shire where one can sit comfortably and have tea and cakes. There is no restful peace in a lovely Elven house. Every scene puts the characters further into emotional turmoil. The danger and threat is trebled as the story intersects a broken Fellowship scattered across a landscape of woe. It is not the first time I have seen an epic adventure story colored with so much hopelessness. Again I recognize the hand of Akira Kurosawa as a director's inspiration. It seems that PJ is determined to give us splendid sights of war and trials of bravery for our heroes, yet always he brings us back to the cost. The cost in lives, yes, but more so the cost in broken spirit.
The Two Towers is a huge, spectacular movie that differs in tone from its predecessor. There are fewer moments of relaxing wonderment. Instead, PJ brings the story up high to thrill you, then brings his focus back to grief and heartache. It is an unusual thing for such a big time blockbuster movie. I sense the risk he is taking here. The audience that comes in for just a pleasant diversion is in for quite a different ride.
And that's really what makes it so fascinating. Beyond the huge battles and sublime special effects, there is a humanity to the proceedings, touching and rather sad. But that same quality always existed in Tolkien's writing; and it always attracted me to the story.
Let's get down to brass tacks. The very best things in Towers are so grand, so breathtaking, that I have to share them with you. Here is my short list of what I enjoyed most of all. And also a mention of the small problems I had with changes from the book.
** Beware! Many spoilers follow! **
Nothing can prepare you for the fall of Gandalf. It is the glorious battle of two great Maiar spirits, Wizard and Balrog, both falling into the bottomless pit underneath the mountains. I've never imagined such a violent clash of power. It is astonishing to behold. To say more would cause diminishment.
I do think this is worth repeating: the effort that went into this project was back-breaking.... and it shows. What you see onscreen is glorious, from beginning to end. Here we have a continuing vision of Middle-earth that is vast and wild. The pageantry of the landscape alone will make your jaw drop. The fantastic new images (Fangorn Forest!) and locations (the city of Edoras!) are delicious. Grant Major's production design, the vibrant cinematography by Andrew Lesnie, and certainly every beautiful sword, spear, and helmet from Richard Taylor's crew makes it all so perfect. More Oscars are going to be dished out, believe me.
And oh, my Lord, there has to be a special award for Gollum. How have they created such a creature? I don't think words can describe how compelling and fully realized this character is. He is just perfect, perfect, perfect. The entire look of him is wretched, sad, grotesque. Andy Serkis does more here, with the far-reaching assistance of WETA's digital animators, than just give Gollum a voice. He performed full on in every scene, alongside Sean Astin and Elijah Wood, and you have to marvel at the many months he was stuck in that motion-capture suit. The end result comes down to our emotional involvement with Sméagol. It is not how real he LOOKS as much as how real he FEELS. We respond when Frodo opens his heart to this twisted soul, showing him mercy and gratitude. While watching I always believed, without fail, that Gollum was sitting right there having a conversation with Frodo. There world of CGI has now seen its greatest accomplishment with Gollum. The sadness in his eyes was almost unbearable, especially in those scenes where he begins to talk to himself in two distinct voices, Sméagol and Gollum. Without ever falling into melodrama, his two schizophrenic sides have a compelling argument about loyalty and trust. Andy Serkis is now a god in my book -- one of Britain's finest actors ever who has finally brought Tolkien's most complicated character to life. Bravo!
Newcomers Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto, and Brad Dourif are superb here. The overwhelming threat of events brings out the best in their characters. Poor Théoden, who has suffered from the evil spell of Gríma and Saruman, finds it very difficult to get back his confidence. He has lost his son, and seemingly lost his nerve as King. Watching his range of emotions is wonderful, as a fiery Éowyn tries to inspire her uncle to come back to his true form. I knew that Miranda Otto was perfect for the part the day I met her on the set. Seeing her come to life onscreen should make every Tolkien fan happy, for she is sincerely, truly the Éowyn that we have read in the books.
The finest single shot in the film is one of the smallest. The camera shows a burial mound, with a small stone door centered in the frame. A hand brings up a beautiful white flower, cold and pale in the foreground. The symmetry of the composition is precise, clean, and simple. Théoden kneels and grieves for his son, holding up a fragile simbelmynë as he weeps. The mounds outside of Edoras are sprinkled with these flowers. In a film overflowing with furious events, it is a rare moment of quiet reflection.
Another scene, perhaps even more touching, takes us back to Rivendell. We see the softer side of Aragorn when he is asked by a curious Éowyn to explain "the woman who gave you that jewel." She is of course talking about the Evenstar pendant. His flashback to Arwen is colored with dominant shades of deep blue and grey. He remembers the stern look on Elrond's face as the Lord of Imladris insists that he let her go. And later things turn even more somber. We see a private conversation between father and daughter; and Elrond reminds her of her fate. Arwen sees clearly her future self, suffering the loss of her mortal husband after many years; standing by his body she is like "nightfall in winter that comes without a star." But all the Elven ships that would carry her have gone. This scene is handled with absolute, crushing sadness. Perfect.
Of course, the intimate scale of this film is nothing compared to the huge action set pieces. In the words of another great showman, it is a "Spectacular spectacular!"
What other word besides awesome can be used to describe the battle at Helm's Deep? You will be awash in thousands of Uruk-hai, storming across the Deeping Wall. You will revel in the outrageous MASSIVE Software that makes the armies so lifelike! You will squeal with delight when the two friends Legolas and Gimli start their count of Orc heads. And I'm sure you will wonder at the sheer scope of the whole affair. The movie slowly builds on the characters' feelings of uncertainty and fear.... so that the final cathartic hour is fraught with tension and high heroics.
The appearance of Treebeard is another jewel in WETA's crown. A giant, magnificent arboreal creation, Treebeard is unique. Later during the Entmoot, Merry and Pippin sit and watch as the Ents' slow, rolling back and forth becomes a conversation they cannot possibly understand. Treebeard actually seems more dangerous here than they way I remember him in the book, but perhaps that is a good thing. He is dangerous to Saruman, surely. Wait till you see the angered Ents march on Isengard, ripping everything to shreds in their wrath. Wow! Unfortunately my alter ego, Quickbeam, does not appear. Sorry folks.
All these technical and visual marvels carry the film high above what I am used to seeing in the movies. Howard Shore takes his amazing, complex score and brings it to another level. There is softness, hurt, longing, majesty, and above all grandeur in his music. The WETA team has put every organic detail in just the right spot. The actors are especially fine (we don't get to see enough of Sir Ian McKellen, brilliant as ever). There is a synergy here among PJ's technical teams, his actors, and the score. It really is a remarkable, and fantastic, and satisfying film to behold.
So why am I not giving it a perfect 10 out of 10?
Well, I must be wholly honest here and say there is something slightly amiss in Towers. After I left the press screening, I went back and read my original reactions to Fellowship [http://greenbooks.theonering.net/quickbeam/files/121001.html], and I realized a similar problem exists in both films. In this case, the culprit is the editing.
While watching, I got the strong sense that material was missing; trimmed and cut to bring the film down to a manageable length. You can easily imagine PJ preferred to make Towers longer, but was obligated by the money-counters at New Line to cut, cut, cut. It is an unfortunate thing. There are scenes between characters that felt truncated -- and scenes that did not have full emotional closure (for example, after the victory at Helm's Deep, we never go back to see the women and children come out of the Glittering Caves, happy to be alive in the morning light; and we never follow-up with Legolas and Gimli to learn who won the final head count). I actually felt vacant spaces, like something should have been there. Sometimes PJ seemed to be cramming the narrative to its fullest, at the expense of solid storytelling rhythm. The very close of the film seemed like a sudden rush to wrap up the story: "Oops, we're out of time, gotta keep this thing under three hours."
This is not a critical fault. But it makes a difference when you know there is more to it, that some of the hard edges of the narrative are a little too hard. The edges needed smoothing. The "narrative beats," as we say in theatre, were interrupted.
And then there is Faramir. He seems very much a different character than the one Tolkien wrote. Now, I'm not one to wail loudly about things being adapted and changed. I don't mind lots of Elven archers showing up at Helm's Deep. I don't mind that the healing of Théoden feels like a frightening "exorcism." All that is actually pretty cool to me. I don't fret much with all those changes from the book.
But David Wenham's Faramir is rather harsh. He is not always likeable. When I read the original text of The Two Towers, I see proof that Faramir is stern but also wise, and a good listener -- he is ultimately very kind and generous to the hobbits, and he says this to Frodo in "The Window on the West:"
"So fear me not! .... if you will trust me, it may be that I can advise you in your present quest, whatever that be -- yes, and even aid you."
But the movie version of Faramir is not so openhanded. He keeps the hobbits as prisoners, making sure they know they are prisoners, and seems as prideful and rash as his older brother. It is important that Faramir be likable, for he is a foil to the arrogance of Boromir. In Towers, it is only after an extremely dangerous encounter with the Enemy, where Sam challenges Faramir with a passionate plea, that we see him begin to soften.
My good friend Matthew went to the NYC premiere and had a personal chat with screenwriter Philippa Boyens afterward. He had the chance to talk with her about the intense changes to Faramir. According to his report, Philippa "had some interesting things to say on the above -- basically saying that Faramir's character is completely static in the books, and thus wouldn't translate well filmically. She wanted to extend his character to give him more of a journey, and also seemed to imply that it would seem incongruous were Faramir immediately sea-green incorruptible; whereas all other Men in the film (even Aragorn) definitely have to wrestle with their conscience to a greater or lesser extent."
Now this makes some sense to me. Perhaps this harsher Faramir will have the opportunity to grow and change during the third film. Perhaps he will show some of the charity and wisdom that makes Éowyn fall in love with him. So again I am reminded that this is a very different medium. It is not a novel, so it cannot succeed where a novel would have. It is ill-advised to judge a movie adaptation such as this as one would judge a book. They are just horses of different colors.
And speaking of horses, just wait until you see Shadowfax's magnificent entrance!
Ah, there I go again. Praising on and on about how much I truly enjoyed this movie. So that should tell you something.
Much too hasty,
Post your comments on this article.