Saturday, 16 January 2010

Lording it over the Rings: Part 2 - Lots of Horses and a CGI Wretch

The Two Towers

The Two Towers was always my least favourite of the three films. Not because I didn’t think it was great or that I didn’t love it, I did. I think I just missed the simple linear story and the more magical feel of The Fellowship of the Ring. Plus it had one storyline that, frankly, just rather bored me.

The Two Towers is that tricky middle act of a story where you can almost feel as if you are treading water until the big stuff happens later on. This is something Lucas managed to avoid with The Empire Strikes Back, making that the best film of the Star Wars saga. It is something Peter Jackson almost avoids with The Two Towers. What these middle films can do is devote more time to character building and moving story elements in to new and often darker places. And this is what happens here. Basically The Two Towers is a war film. It is a grim story of an attempted genocide against an entire people, the people of Rohan by the industrialised forces of Isengard. It is a story of the destruction of nature in an attempt to dominate the world with iron. This war against nature is shown through the third of three separate story threads, the destruction of Fangorn Forest and the awakening of the Ents, tree-like beings who live in the forest, and their eventual furious rise against Isengard and the now evil wizard Saruman. It has to be said that the whole Ent plot is my least favourite thing about this film. To be honest I don’t much care for Treebeard or the story of Merry and Pippin who are with him and the other Ents. I know it is important thematically and plotwise for the story, but I just get rather bored by slow moving, talking trees. Every time they cut to Merry and Pippin and Treebeard I just want to be back with Aragorn and the Rohirrim or with Frodo, Sam and Gollum. It is in those two stories that The Two Towers shines.

Firstly, the people of Rohan, the Rohirrim. They are a marvellous creation by Tolkien and brought to the screen wonderfully by Peter Jackson and co. They are basically a throwback to the Anglo Saxons if they had developed a horse-based culture and a history not interrupted by the Norman invasion. The realisation of their capital, Edoras, a city of wood and thatch built around a huge jagged hill with the great hall of Meduseld crowning its top, is fabulous. From the moment we get there the culture feels real and old and authentic. The people of Rohan are great with some wonderful characters and actors bringing them to life – none more so than Bernard Hill as King Theoden. Theoden is possibly my favourite character in these films. Hill gives him such world-weary depth. He is full of sadness and doubt over his role and ability as king, yet he is also filled with such bravery, sense of honour and genuine love for his lost son and for his lovely niece Eowyn. His story is fantastic. From first seeing him as the puppet of Saruman, controlled by the vile Wormtongue (a splendid Brad Dourif) then to grieving father, to doubt ridden king, to fearless and noble leader who accepts his fate as a part of how things should be, he is truly captivating. This is my favourite character journey in the films. I just adore Theoden’s simple, quiet and forlorn line to Aragorn, as the forces of Isengard are about to overrun his keep: “What can men do against such reckless hate?” This is so simple and so true and sadly relates so well to our world today. What indeed can we do? And then there is Eowyn. Ah, lovely Eowyn. She was always my favourite female character in the films…not that there are many to choose from. And she is probably my second favourite character after Theoden in terms of character journey. She encompasses everything that is good and true while being desperate to actually fight for what she loves and believes in. She is resilient and brave – emotionally as well as in battle. Her handling of her affection for Aragorn is heartfelt and mature, never letting it consume her. Her defiance of tradition and her belief in anyone being able to fight for what they love is beautiful stuff. And of course it pays off handsomely in The Return of the King in one of the best moments of the entire trilogy. Miranda Otto is perfect in the role. She has a fragile porcelain beauty about her, yet also a tough indomitable spirit. She’s lovely and she kicks some major ass. Watching her again as Eowyn I fell in love a little bit.

The war story comes to a head with the siege and battle of Helms Deep, the mountain fortress the Rohirrim go to in times of need. And the battle is spectacular in a grim, horrific, dirty and violent way. The action is built up slowly and purposefully; plenty of dread and hopelessness abounds as the people of Rohan await the awesome and horrific might of ten thousand orcs and uruk-hai. This is wonderfully shown in the tension between Aragorn and Legolas over the hopelessness of the cause and Aragorn teaching a young boy how to wield his sword and - more importantly - about hope, which is a major theme of The Lord of the Rings. Hope is always there no matter what. Never give up. Never lie down and die for you have no idea what may be waiting around the next corner, something that may arrive unexpected to turn your ill fortunes to good. Tolkien termed this concept the eucatastrophe, the opposite of catastrophe. And this eucatastrophe happens twice at Helms Deep, although one is invented by the filmmakers (the arrival of the elves) with the other being Gandalf and Eomer’s arrival out of the rising sun in the east to save the day. This is brilliant, elegant and deeply stirring stuff. The charge of the Rohirrim led by Gandalf down the steep hill with the sun blazing behind them is truly magnificent.

The other story strand of the film is of course Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor. This is where they hook up with Gollum who offers to lead them to Mordor through secret ways. Gollum is amazing. The CGI still looks fantastic even after the likes of Avatar. But it is the performance by Andy Serkis that really sells him. He is utterly believable and truly a wretched thing yet also pitiable. You can’t help but dislike Sam for always having a go despite knowing full well that Sam is right. When Frodo and Sam meet up with Faramir, Boromir’s brother, things get even more interesting. Faramir is the younger brother living in his older brother’s shadow, always seeking to please his dismissive father. So when the opportunity to do what Boromir failed to do – take the one ring to Gondor - comes his way he goes with it. This leads to the siege of Osgiliath and Faramir’s realisation that to really be strong and be right he must let Frodo go and resist the rings’ temptation. Which is what he does. And the film ends with Sam, Frodo and Gollum making their way closer to Mordor with Gollum secretly deciding to lead them to their deaths and reclaim the ring for himself.

The Two Towers is fantastic and plays a lot better than I remembered it. Even the Treebeard stuff, which I still don’t much like, I can cope with better now. But it is the wonderful Rohirrim and Theoden and Eowyn, the grim and brutal Helms Deep battle and the brilliance of Gollum that makes this stand out as the classic it is. The extended edition also gives us the fate if Saruman too. Any excuse to see the always-awesome Christopher Lee is fine by me.

The story concludes…

1 comment:

  1. Spot on review.

    It, for me, is also my least favored of the three...but in context is still one of the best films ever made.