Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003) Film Review
The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King
Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald
The three Lord of the Rings films represent possibly the finest blockbuster work in the last ten years. The main reason I love the books is the world in which they live, the microcosmic detail in the pages. The sheer scope and weight of everything, hung onto a story which is affirming and can easily support such pretentious and lofty scribesmanship. Jackson's LOTR dispenses with much of the detail, yet leaving in plenty, so devotees of the Ring can appreciate the true verisimilitude of the adaptation. Allusions to events in The Silmarillion and to excised material from the books remain, but do not consume precious runtime through slavish devotion, which was a dangerous flaw in Chris Columbus' Potter films. The release structure of The Lord of the Rings works especially well. Each film can stew and percolate through our minds over the scattered years of release, and the video releases of the theatrical and extended cuts inspire repeat viewings. These characters and their plights linger, before the next cinematic episode, becoming a fine serial.
The Fellowship of the Ring was a fully fleshed out, genuinely dark fantasy in scope, character and form. It contained a beginning, middle and end, ending on a high note. And the expanded version is even better, fleshing out everything nicely! A film needs to be as long as it is good.
The weakest of the series, The Two Towers, took everything that Fellowship had done and pushed the story onwards into the besieged kingdom of Rohan. The film starts with a bang, the scope increases, and the emotional journey of Frodo and Sam deepens; plus there's the astonishing performance and characterisation of Gollum. Since The Two Towers has so many drops of molten gold in its story, why does it feel overweight and clumsy by comparison to the previous in the series? Spectacular Seven Samurai inspired MASSIVE (the acronym for the artificial intelligence used to simulate large armies) battles and horseback fights short-change the hobbits' stories, leaving us with three hours of carelessly juggled triple story threads. And the expanded edition feels like a Redux cut. It doesn't fix the original issues but adds some of its own. The story's climax goes on and on, until it eventually thins out. The Two Towers still has lots to ensnare the senses, if only occasionally the heart. (The tone poem of Theoden - Where is the horse and the rider? - while his people are preparing for war, remains one of the series' strongest and most powerful moments.)
The Return of the King, like Fellowship, starts off slowly and carefully, re-establishing our characters and revealing our ticket back to Middle-earth. Again, the Devil is in the detail. Gandalf may be sleeping when Pippin sneaks up on him, but he sleeps with his eyes open. The Rohirrim wear armour which has horses on the crests and heads on the hilts of the swords. There's unbridled joy in watching Gandalf on Shadowfax ride to the top of Minas Tirith. Sure, "it's only a model"... but what awesome scope, and vision! Frodo's eyes show the millstone weight of the Ring, and we see it wearing away at his neck, the thin, red, raw skin screaming out. There's the minute long visual and musical poem of Gondor calling for aid. The deep triumphant crimson of the Eye of Sauron, flawlessly framed between the Black Gate and the remaining orcs and the heroic men of Middle Earth. Startling imagery has always been Jackson's strength, and he delivers again and again throughout The Return of the King.
If there are two performers who take credit in this third chapter, it must be Ian McKellen as the old wizard Gandalf the White and Sean Astin as the ever-loyal and surprisingly brave Samwise Gamgee. Frankly, there are no sour notes among the expansive cast, though McKellen and Astin shine. And Viggo Mortensen takes his final step towards stardom with his humanely commanding performance as the previously reluctant man who learns to assume his kingly responsibilities, uniting the world against the Dark Lord Sauron - not so much as facing his inner demons as coming to realise the world needs him in his place. Denethor (John Noble) gets time in the expanded cut to be more than mere antagonist.
Jamie Selkirk's editing of The Return of the King deserves particular praise; with richly delivered tones and style, he inter- and intra-edits for incredible impact. (The Siege of Gondor - everything works. The horrific opening salvo, the catapults devastating the city, the siege rams, the bezerker trolls dressed in thick armour, the magnificent near-suicidal and sacrificial charge of the Rohirrim.) And as the journey of Frodo, Sam and Gollum reaches its head, it's difficult not to be moved by empathy for our valiant heroes, especially Sam. The unbroken will of his resolve to help Frodo up the Mountain of Fire overwhelmed me. It's the sheer manipulative skill of Jackson and Selkirk that they nurture each story thread and bring them to a satisfying head. The movie veers from pure elation to dark despair and back in a frighteningly brief moment, and manages to do it without feeling the least bit schizophrenic or cheaply written. Each element is polished to a fine veneer. The theme of self-sacrifice runs through the veins of Return of the King and never lets up, not even during the excellent 20-minute epilogue.
Howard Shore's music deserves special attention. Listening to the soundtrack CDs of the previous two films plants musical themes that are fully realised through visual and emotional cues. Like Jackson's other areas, it mixes tone, style, melody, geography and instrumental work to glorious impact. The Shire has a string of Celtic inspired themes; Mordor has brassy and thick corrupting tones. The themes sometimes mingle beautifully for incredible power, or at times clash violently and intimately like swords and shields or two massive forces tearing each other up. There are live performances of the score as a symphony - it is that good.
Oh, yes... that epilogue. It could have finished at Aragorn's coronation, like Star Wars, but the emotional journey of the characters would have been incomplete. Bilbo and Frodo leaving for the Grey Havens, with Bilbo pining after his old ring, gives the film an unpleasant tang of bitterness. They'll never be free of its soul-staining power. Here the film takes as long as it needs. As for the lengthy ending criticisms, we've just seen the end of an eleven hour movie - is it too much to ask for some decent closure on these characters who have won over our hearts and minds?
Before the theatrical release of The Fellowship of the Ring, did anyone expect the playfully genial director of Braindead and Heavenly Creatures to deliver on his promise of such a gargantuan piece of 20th century literature? I like to think the true meaning of the word epic in cinema is that the ideas stretch much farther than the story, the edges of the screen disappear and form a whole world in which you can believe. Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings achieves this, and I dearly love it for that.Reviewed on: 23 Dec 2006