We had been led to expect much from the sequel to The Fellowship of the Ring, and Peter Jackson has more than delivered. In The Two Towers, the cinematic version of the Lord of the Rings comes into its own, and the result is a rapturous experience of epic romance that for the most part manages to avoid pretension or silliness. Although just a minute shy of three hours, there are few dull moments and almost no flab, and while heavy on spectacle, the movie never sacrifices its characters.
From the first scene, panning across the snow-capped mountains, one is immediately plunged back into the supersized world of Jackson's Middle Earth. Eschewing any recapitulation of the story-so-far, Jackson brings us straight back to the indomitable slopes of Caradhas -- not the first or the last time that the magnificent New Zealand scenery plays an important cameo -- and Gandalf's fall in the Mines of Moria. Ian McKellan comes through magnificently, managing to look grand, awe-inspiring and impish by turn, an ancient wisdom lighting his eyes, fleshing out a character in a few deft strokes.
From Moria, the film literally, starts off on-the-double, with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli setting off after their two hobbit friends into the wide fields of Rohan. John Rhys-Davies' Gimli provides comic relief, giving expression to Tolkien' somewhat donnish humor. The fact that the dwarf has been given a broad brogue is rather interesting, though somehow not inappropriate -- although the associations with stocky legs and hirsute women might not be welcomed by all Scots.
The Two Towers, in which the fellowship splits and the reader has to follow at least three distinct plot strands, was always going to be the most difficult of the three films structurally. Some of the cutting back and forth gets a little annoying, but on the whole, Jackson has done a wonderful job with the difficult material, maintaining an overall narrative flow without which the three-hour film would be intolerable.
One of the most outstanding features of The Two Towers is the character of Gollum, who as a CGI creation has brought comparison with Dobby the house elf from the most recent Harry Potter installment. But there is a qualitative difference that puts Gollum (voice of Andy Serkis) in a totally new league of believable, complex and compelling animatronic characters. A little too much is made of Gollum's interior monologues, but given the quality, it is easy to forgive the director for indulging himself a little.
The film's other major CGI element, the ents and their assault on Isengard, is played more for humor and is not at the same level of sophistication. For all that, Tolkien fans can breath easy that even here Jackson avoids the pitfall of creating a new breed of Jar-Jar Binks.
While we will have to wait till next Christmas to decide which will be the best of the three Lord of the Rings movies, The Two Towers has upped the stakes with the dramatic tension leading to what must be one of the most magnificent battle sequences of CGI filmmaking history. There are shades of Michael Caine in Zulu (1964), and despite the presence of orcs, elves and a dwarf -- fantasy characters that provide ample opportunity for the ludicrous -- the Battle of Helm's Deep is a gut wrenching affair, which for all its magnificent spectacle and the interludes of heroic darey-do, never lets you forget the terrible human cost of war and the reckless toll it takes on the innocent. The peasants of Rohan, cowering in their the caves of Helm's Deep, are full of echoes of the Blitz, and one can almost hear the rumble of Churchillian rhetoric about "our darkest hour" and never giving in.
The little humorous exchanges centering on Gimli are a deft touch, lightening the mood without undermining it. They bring the highfalutin heroic language back down to earth and makes it palatable.
While Ian McKellan steals the show among the movie's human cast, Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Miranda Otto (Eowyn), Bernard Hill (Theoden) and a host of other little-known names all do outstanding work in clearly delineating their characters in such a sprawling and complex canvass. The only fly in this reviewer's ointment is the exaggerated presence of Liv Tyler, who plays Arwen, the elfish maiden who loves Aragorn, a mortal man. Jackson tries to flesh out the whole matter of the relationship between elves and men in a number of rather ham-handed dialogues, which are the only real yawn in the movie.
The long lingering close-up smooch shot -- de rigeur in glamour productions -- really feels out of place and you really just want to get back to the adventure. The intrusion of Hollywood-style romance is rather at odds with the chivalric tradition in which the rest of the movie is set. While Tyler manages to look like she just walked off the set of a shampoo commercial, Aragorn's other love interest, Miranda Otto, is much more alive and contributes a genuine strain of romance that is definitely much more in keeping with the tone of the original.
Such a huge project is bound to have flaws, but these are minor when measured against the totality of Jackson's achievement of bringing one of the most complex and beloved works of 20th century literature to the scene in a version that is able, for its imaginative splendor and tight narrative, to stand on its own feet. The only disappointment at the end is that it will be another 12 months before one can watch the final episode.
Lord of the Rings:
The Two Towers
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellan (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Sam), Billy Boyd (Pippin), Dominic Monaghan (Merry), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Miranda Otto (Eowyn), Brad Dourif (Grima Wormtongue), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Bernard Hill (Theoden)
Running Time: 179 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
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