Peter Jackson must be feeling pretty good right now. This unassuming filmmaker, little known outside the circles of cult horror films, convinced a major American film company to provide him with $300 million dollars, assembled an ecclectic team of perfomers, from respected thespians to relative unknowns, ferried them to far-off New Zealand, shot untold hours of film for 14 months, and using his own post-production companies, polished and released, over three years, a gigantically successful series of films that constitute a trilogy Orson Welles deemed unfilmable. In doing so, he also broke the sequel curse, that notorious and fearsome law of cinema that states the quality of sequels goes inevitably downhill. Indeed, even upon two viewings, The Return of the King
, last of three films, stands tall, even among such splendid competition as The Fellowship of the Ring
and The Two Towers
... and this humble reviewer feels that with time (and an Extended Edition or two), it will stand tallest.
Among the most impressive of accomplishments in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is the quality of the scripts, and the care with which co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson adapted Tolkien's work to the screen. The film scripts are, in many ways, ideal adaptations, respecting the books without being enslaved by them. Jackson and company understand that what might work perfectly in the novels could destroy the film, and they streamline and tweak the story, excising certain sequences, adding others, shifting settings and lines, and creating a story progression that is cinematic rather than literary. However -and this is to their greatest credit- their scripts never lose track of the book's soul. Indeed, while those who have read the books may not be watching the exact same events unfold on screen, they know that this is, without a doubt, The Lord of the Rings
As in The Two Towers
, the filmmakers trust the audience to remember the events of the previous movies and begin the film without recapping the story. After a smartly placed prologue involving the origins of the creature Gollum, the film immediately delves back into the two main stories: that of Frodo, Sam and Gollum who are famished, scraped, and increasingly tortured; and that of the rest of the Fellowship, now reunited in Rohan under the leadership of the increasingly noble Aragorn and the increasingly intrepid (and impatient) Gandalf. Gollum, ever-desiring the Ring, plans to sow discord between Frodo and Sam and to lead them to their deaths; Gandalf and Aragorn plan to rally troops and mount the defense of Minas Tirith, great citadel of Men, against the imminent and massive attack of Sauron's army. Throughout these two main storylines are seamlessly woven numerous subplots: the progressive disintegration of the once vital and bright Frodo, and the maturation of the naive Sam; the evolution and conclusion of the difficult romance between Aragorn and the elf Arwen, and the impossible relationship between Aragorn and Eowyn; the painful, brutal coming-of-age (so to speak) of the childish Merry and Pippin; and the madness brought on by war and power personified in the character of Denethor, Stewart of Gondor. The masterful nature of the screenplay is evident in the way these subplots evolve along with the main story arc, enriching it and complementing it, and this is but one of the reasons The Return of the King
stands above and beyond any commercial release this year.
Another reason is the thematic weight carried by this final film of the trilogy. Indeed, all of the thematic arcs established in the first two movies culminate here, with uniformly satisfying success. Most impressive and worthy of mention, however, is the coda that the film ends with: that some wounds never fully heal, that one cannot always go back to how things were before, and that no war victory, however successful and however complete, can erase certain hurts. In these times of conflict, when the military polemic is that of unquestionable success, and when most blockbusters tend to gloss over the issues with uniformly happy endings, it is courageous for a trilogy of such commercial scope to end on a note so bittersweet.
Of course, even given the quality of the adaptation, the enormous scope of the film requires an enormous array of talents, both behind and in front of the camera. And, fortunately, the The Return of the King
team delivers most impressively.
First and foremost is, of course, Peter Jackson, who, in the year's most impressive display of directorial skill, juggles depth and dazzle near flawlessly, and delivers not only the year's most sheerly compelling work, but what is probably the shortest three hour and twenty minute film ever made. Indeed, due to the exceptional work of editor Jamie Selkirk, The Return of the King
is, for three hours, a film of enormous momentum. It is, in fact, splendidly lean - there is nary a bit of fat to be found, with every scene contributing to the narrative or emotional drive. And if, after the film reaches its shattering climax, the twenty minute ending seems to proceed more slowly, it nevertheless possesses an almost surreal sense of peace that gives it a great, cathartic power.
It is also essential to mention the superlative work of the craftsmen behind the camera. Visually, the film is splendid, to no one's great surprise. Andrew Lesnie, the talented director of photography who won an Oscar for the first installment of the trilogy, does as good a work, if not better, with The Return of the King
. He achieves a flawless balance between the lush, vivid colors of Fellowship
and the drained, bleak tones of The Two Towers
, and with this balance, the world of Middle-Earth comes alive better than ever before. Two more visual tidbits are also worth mentioning. The first is that composition-wise, The Return of the King
is often quite surprising. While Fellowship
and The Two Towers
featured an ever-moving camera, this final installment is peppered with static shots which, in the quality and grandeur of their composition, recall the iconic power of such classics as Lawrence of Arabia
. The second is that the integration of computer generated graphics into a real environment has never been so seamless. Especially of note is the charge of the gigantic Mumakil war-elephants, a virtuoso scene in which gigantic beasts charge over a plain with a realism that is stunning.
Like its two predecessors before it, The Return of the King
also benefits enormously from the musical skills of Howard Shore, its composer, who manages to create a score that combines the familiar and the new to great effect. The familiar, of course, refers to the interweaving themes that represent the various characters, places, and events of the trilogy, and Shore does a magnificent job of expanding upon them as well as restating them. And the new, of which there is quite a lot of, is as exceptional as the familiar, and more than a bit surprising in that it is more lyrical and ethereal than either of the two previous scores.
Finally, it is impossible to speak of The Return of the King
without commending the great performances it encompasses. The film's crucial characters are those of Frodo and Sam, and both Elijah Wood and Sean Astin deliver perfectly. Their relationship is both heartfelt and mercurial, and Astin's emotional, stalwart Sam is a perfect counterpoint for Wood's increasingly detached and wraithlike Frodo. Between them, of course, lies the pivotal Gollum, brought to life in equal parts by Andy Serkis and the digital wizards at WETA. Thankfully, the character is as evocative and convincing as any of his fleshy counterparts, an achievement that should not, in this reviewer's opinion, go unrecognized by the powers that be. The other performers fare just as well. After a diminished role in The Two Towers, Sir Ian McKellen's Gandalf returns to the forefront of the film, with the veteran actor giving a performance that, while different from his Fellowship one, is just as convincing. Gandalf the White is more authoritative, more intelligent, and more impatient, and McKellen plays him as such without ever losing his human side. A similar balance is struck by Viggo Mortensen in Aragorn. I was at first dissapointed by his performance, which I thought to lack regality; upon a second viewing, I realized that he underplayed his character enormously, giving him an inherent humanity that ennobles him more than any over-dramatizing could have done. In contrast to Aragorn's humanity is Denethor, the Steward of Gondor's cruel madness, and it is illustrated to great effect by Australian actor John Noble, who captures his every twisted whim and regret. Small, wonderful performances are also given by the rest of the cast: Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan deepen Merry and Pippin and give key scenes resonance; Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies enliven Legolas and Gimli with both comic banter and short moments of pathos; and Bernard Hill and Mirando Otto give great texture and pathos to Theoden and his niece Eowyn.
The Return of the King
is a resounding success, and a spectacular final chapter to one of the most celebrated film series of recent decades. It is a passionate and full-blooded film, crafted with intelligence, skill, and flair, that delivers on all fronts. Its only flaw is that it is perhaps too breathless and too intense, but that is a middling quibble at best, and one that will be rectified with the release of the Extended Edition. As it stands, it is one of the very best films of the year, destined to stand as a masterful ending to a masterful trilogy. It deserves every accolade and every praise.