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Article ID: 7722
Age Group: Adult
Posted: December 17th. 2003
Return of the King - Peg's Review
by Peg Aloi
December 17th., 2003
I have heard it said more than once that Tolkien was not a fan of allegory. Fair enough... the man was writing adventure stories, and sometimes a big sword is just a big sword. But that doesn't mean we cannot find profound symbolism and depth of meaning in his works. I have been reading a fair amount about Tolkien lately, as he is a hot topic now among academics , film critics and pop psychologists. (I have also been using a wonderful patchouli soap called "Middle Earth Turns to Rock" by Lush, but maybe that is just a coincidence). According to those people passionate or obsessed enough to write about such things, Tolkien can teach us about love and sex , war and terror or any number of important subjects. Do I think of the state of this sad, sorry, world when I watch these films? Yes. Do the scenes depicting aggression and greed and cruelty and evil resonate harshly, prompting comparisons to recent world events? Of course. Do I come away with hope for the future. Oh, yes. Perhaps I am being a tad too quick to see allegory where none exists; or maybe there is nothing so inspiring as an adventure as full of tears and triumph as this one is.
While I don't think the Lord of the Rings series of books will become the next Harry Potter in terms of current popularity (though they previously broke records for best-seller lists over the last several decades), simply because they are not as accessible as J. K. Rowling's, I do think these films will at the very least allow people (young, old, jaded, cynical, and those too busy or dull to read books) to consider what good story-telling can be, and spur them to seek it out more than they have in recent years. Is there anything more central to life, really, than the telling of a good tale? From our earliest ancestors, who danced around the fire, speaking and singing of great hunts and storms and battles, to the troubadours who first spun tales of romance and chivalry, to the great dramatists who made words come to life on the stage - we are captivated by narratives that make our pains and joys larger, somehow realer, than they are: stories are mirrors, echo-chambers, conversations with what lives in our minds and hearts.
Once upon a time, the cinema was the place where dreams came true, where one escaped for a few hours into realms wherein life was lived more beautifully, more dangerously, more meaningfully than we usually found it to be, and we could emerge, perhaps, wanting our own lives to be that much more exciting, or purposeful, or colorful. I think this trio of films hearkens us back to that Golden Age, and that Peter Jackson and his cast and crew are to be hailed as heroes for bringing the magic back into our lives. Yeah, that's corny. So be it. Forgive me while I forget the troubles of the world and my own shabby existence for a while and wax rhapsodic about this great film.
This last installment of the Lord of the Rings is the finest of them all, even the wonderful extended versions now being shown in theatres and available on DVD. The battle scenes are grander, the design elements bolder and more fully-realized, the visual effects more complex and smoothly-done, the action more thrilling, the smaller, more intimate scenes better-integrated into the story. Jackson takes a great many liberties with the story as it appears in Tolkien's books, but the result is still a stunning tour de force of story-telling. Oddly, my only complaint is that the ending/epilogue went on a bit too long (the "Scouring of the Shire" episode is expected but does not occur). But perhaps by the end I was a bit depressed about, well, you know, no more Christmas release dates to look forward to.
The film opens with two hobbits fishing. Here we learn the origin of Gollum: a simple halfling named Smeagol, who happens upon the Ring of Power and kills his best friend to possess it. We see his deterioration as the Ring takes his mind and body, and British actor Andy Serkis is fascinating as always in this grueling portrayal. (I recently saw Mike Leigh's film Career Girls and Serkis has a great cameo in this as a womanizing drunken Yuppie.) Frodo and Sam are led into a dangerous mountain pass and Smeagol/Gollum preys on thei r fatigue, manipulating Frodo and deceiving Sam. There is a thrilling scene with a giant spider that, if you're asking me, is a masterpiece of homoerotic subtext... but maybe that's just me. Or is it Tolkien? Anyway, this scene also contains one of the film's greatest descriptive bits of dialogue, spoken by an orc, when he refers to Frodo as being "limp as a boned fish."
Meanwhile, Gandalf is riding with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli to prepare for yet another battle against the encroaching orc army. Their concern for Frodo and Sam is ever present, but their most immediate task is the protection of Rohan and its people. Aragorn, of course, is also mindful of Arwen (the luminous Liv Tyler, who somehow remains cleaner and probably sweeter-smelling throughout these films than all the other characters combined - don't get me wrong, I liked the grimy-fingernails and sweaty-scalp realism a lot, but I must admit those impeccably-groomed elves were always a pleasure to look upon), who has told him she chose a mortal existence as his lover instead of escaping her doomed land of Rivendell with the immortal elven tribe. And though Aragorn himself is older than he looks (87! Hubba hubba!), Arwen's choice may end her "human" life prematurely. The time of elves, we are reminded, is coming to and end, the time of man is come. And, presumably, here we still are. What race will rise next?
You may recall Arwen was convinced by her father Elrond (Hugo Weaving, the versatile Australian actor)to ride away with the elves, and we see them riding through the misty forest, all clad in shades of blue, silver and white on their dapple-grey horses. Arwen asks her father to reforge the broken sword so that Aragorn may take his place as king; part of her dream of their life together is to have him fulfill his magical destiny. Hence the title.
It need not be said that Viggo Mortensen, who has been letter-perfect in this role until now (rugged and warm and thoughtful and never histrionic) is even better in this film where his character comes into his full power and purpose. The scene in the Two Towerswhere he politely eats the awful-tasting stew Eowyn (Miranda Otto, also Australian) has brought him so as not to hurt her feelings is subtle and hilarious; the scene in Return of the King where he must tell her he can never return her love is tender and gut-wrenching. I have followed this actor's career ever since I saw him in a little indie film called Ripe, where he played a drifter who deflowers a precocious teenager, to his role as hippy love-god Walker in A Walk on the Moon to Nicole Kidman's rejected but determined suitor in Portrait of a Lady. In all these films he is a lover first and foremost; but here he is also a warrior, a king, a loyal friend and devoted servant to justice. It is difficult to imagine any other actor doing so well with this role. But obviously one can say the same about the other excellent casting choices made for this film, the two Sir Ians (Holm and McKellen, Bilbo and Gandalf) probably two of the finest actors alive.
As the sword is being forged, we cut to Gandalf telling Aragorn, "We come to it at last; the great battle of our time." He does not sound fearful or sad, but somehow hopeful and awed. As the great wizards of literature have always done, he reminds us that all things that come to pass have their purpose, and that "all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." That Gandalf fights bravely and fiercely alongside the companions gives him a dimension that makes his wisdom and magic that much more urgent. He knows the battle is probably unwinnable but urges everyone on and does not shy away from mortal danger. We should all kick ass so mightily when we become venerable and white-haired.
I don't want to spoil too much more of the plot, so I will just mention a few of my favorite scenes. First off, the battle scenes are absolutely amazing. Words can't even do the justice so I am not even going to try. When Eomer (Karl Urban, my vote for Hunk-o-Rama of the Year) must warn Aragorn that Sauron's armies are approaching, a very cool system is employed: fires are lit atop the highest mountain peaks, by watchers whose sole job has been to wait for the signal from the nearest snow-capped peak to light their own fire. A line of flaming beacons seemingly lights up half of Middle Earth's mountain ranges. It is a gorgeous effect.
The hobbits Pippin and Merry get more screen time here. Merry gets his moment in battle after being frustrated that everyone thinks he is too small to fight. I was very moved by a scene in which Pippin (Billy Boyd), who has sworn fealty to Boromir's father in apology for his son's death in the Quest (you'll remember Boromir was killed when he tried to take the ring from Frodo), is asked to sing for the king. He responds that he knows so songs fitting for great halls and evil times. But he complies, and sings a sorrowful ballad ("mist and shadow, cloud and shame, all shall fade, all shall fade"), as the king greedily eats fruit, having ordered men to their deaths, and his still-living son Faramir (whom he believes dead) to be burned alive on a funeral pyre.
The costume design is stunning, as it has been throughout, and the armor breastplates become more elaborate. The single tree crest with stars overhead becomes more pervasive, first worn by Faramir and then by everyone following Aragorn, on breastplates and banners. When Arwen appears later, she also bears the tree crest, but her version has blossoms on the branches. Very cool. I predict all the kids will be painting this in silver on their leather jackets.
If it were possible, the orcs are uglier than ever before. I think the ancient Greeks had a thing about one's soul or true essence being marked in one's outward appearance, as decreed by the gods. Nuff said.
My favorite line in the film: "Do you remember the taste of strawberries?" You'll know why when you hear it.
Does the Quest succeed? Are the hobbits returned to the Shire? Does Sam ever get the girl? Do Arwen and Aragorn marry? Does Gandalf live to a ripe old age? (What do you become after becoming a White Wizard?) The film's epilogue leaves some questions unanswered, some open for interpretation. Perhaps more will be said when the next extended version appears, a few months from now. I don't mind saying, I am very pleased to have more to look forward to. It makes me feel like the journey will continue.
May your tree blossom beneath a starry sky...
Media Coordinator - The Witches' Voice
Wednesday, December 17th., 2003
Email: [Staff Email]
"Love the earth and sun and animals, Despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, Stand up for the stupid and crazy, Devote your income and labor to others...
And your very flesh shall be a great poem.
-- Walt Whitman
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