This review from today’s culture section of The Sunday Times Magazine is intriguing in that it presents an reasonably alternative view on the film. Suffice it to say that is quite critical in some areas – some of which criticism might well be quite insightful and perhaps justified, whereas some might well be considerably illfounded. Needless to say, it is slightly spoilerish.

Greatest show on Middle-earth

The story line in The Two Towers is worryingly fragmented, says Cosmo Landesman, but you will be awestruck by the spectacle.

Yes, it’s good… But how good? As good as, or even better than, The Fellowship of the Ring? There’s been a critical trend of late to say, with a sigh of relief, that the latest one in a franchise – Attack of the Clones, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Die Another Day – is much better than the one we all suffered before. And I suspect that most people will think that The Two Towers is even better than The Fellowship of the Ring. So, on behalf of a small group of malcontents and movie misfits, may I say: they are wrong and we are right. All three of us. (this figure doesn’t include TORn Staffers – Ara 😉

The reason we are right is that The Two Towers is a bit too much like a conventional blockbuster; it’s action- rather than character-driven, and relies heavily on big set pieces and special effects to wow us. (There’s no doubt that, at its best, it wows wonderfully.) It operates on a visual scale that is far bigger than the first film’s. The director, Peter Jackson, and his camera seem to swoop and swirl in and out of shots like a man surfing the sky. He loves the big backward tracking shot that pulls up and zooms towards the heavens to reveal the majesty of nature or the malevolence of men at war. As for his crowd scenes, well, move over Cecil B DeMille, and tell Leni Riefenstahl the news: nobody does it better than Jackson. But The Two Towers is a triumph of spectacle over storytelling.

In place of the feelgood glow of the fellowship in the first episode, here we get something a little more edgy, a touch darker and a lot more obviously dramatic. But there’s something calculated in Jackson’s grab-’em-by-the-eyeballs opening, with its what-happened-next when Gandalf and the monstrous Balrog disappeared down a ravine in the first film. And it looks fake, so obviously computer-generated, that it undermines the realism of the whole Middle-earth world. It reminds us of what we most want to forget: that it’s only a movie.

Okay, it’s a rocky start, but there’s plenty of time for Jackson to weave his spell. The real trouble with The Two Towers is its structure. Together, hobbits, dwarfs, men and elves are a terrific team. But like a great rock band that pairs off to make different albums, the end product is never as good as the original combination. Here, the fellowship has been fractured into three separate story lines, with mixed results.

The best of the bunch involved Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) and Gollum (based on Andy Serkis) on their journey towards Mordor. This is a subtle, superb slice of drama. The darkness of this film comes not just from the hideous collection of creatures – orcs, Uruk-hai, wargs and Liv Tyler – but from the spectacle of Frodo’s mental and moral decline. Jackson presents us with a boy who is into heavy Rings addiction, and, like all addicts, denies that he has a problem. (Invisibility, Omnipotence, Eternal life? Hey, I can handle it!) But Sam is worried: “You hardly eat, and you hardly sleep.” The Two Towers brings into focus a central theme in Tolkien: the question of temptation and what a man will lose to gain the greatest buzz of all – power.

We can see Frodo’s screwed-up future in the hideous face of his new friend Gollum, who has the cadaverous, junkie demeanour of one who lives only for the high of the Ring. Gollum’s bulging blue eyes – which echo the innocence of Frodo’s – look as if they want to pop out of their sockets, rush off and score. For me, Gollum steals the show. It’s the first time a computer-generated character actually outshines real actors. There’s a beautiful pathos in the scene where Frodo reminds Gollum of his pre-Ring life as a hobbit called Sméagol. But best of all is Gollum’s frenetic, Hamlet-like soliloquy as good and evil fight for control of his soul.

The only other big personality on show is Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Obviously there’s nothing like a life-and-death struggle with a fire-breathing monster to put the wiz back into an old wizard’s step. Gandalf the Grey, who seemed at times like a tired old man ready to retire, is back as Gandalf the White, and this time he’s swinging his stave like a man half his age.

It’s the new characters and storyline that are a disappointment. Most of the drama is set among the humans of the Rohan kingdom, and, consequently, at times The Two Towers looks and sounds like second-hand, second-rate Shakespeare. Bernard Hill does his best with the role of King Théoden, the man who rules Rohan with a heavy crown and heavier heart. His face has that wonderful lost and wounded gloom of a Lear, but he’s let down by creaky dialogue incapable of eloquence. The manipulative Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), who has Théoden under his thumb, aims for slimy malevolence, but just seems creepy. We get a new beauty in the form of the king’s niece, Éowyn (Miranda Otto), but she’s nondescript.

Into this world come Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Middle-earth’s answer to Brian Blessed, the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) – and they end up overshadowed by the story of the king trying to save his people. But the weakest link of all is the story of the two missing hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). They have entered the magical forest of Fangorn, and are being carried along by a giant walking, talking tree called Treebeaerd. (Talk about a wooden performance!) Treebeard looks about as real as the Jolly Green Giant.

Jackson may lose some fans in the middle of the film, but he’ll win everybody back with the climactic battle scene at Helm’s Deep, involving the evil Saruman’s 10,000 Uruk-hai soldiers storming the Rohan fortress. It’s one of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed, yet free of blood and gore. These days, any film that involves anything more than a slap on the wrist is said to be connected to 9/11 or the impending war on Iraq , but it’s hard to ignore the similarity between this film’s talk about resisting “evil” and the rhetoric of George W Bush. It’s surprising that the “love generation” of the 1960s should have taken Tolkien to heart: clearly he was no hippie-dippy pacifist.

What’s so interesting about both Ring films is that they deliver an old-fashioned message you rarely hear in popular culture any more: that it is through struggle with adversity and sacrifice to a greater cause, and not a life of comfort and consumerism, that we bring out the best in ourselves.)

The Lord of the Rings:
The Two Towers.

12A, 180 mins   ***

Update: Ringer Spy James writes in to point out that I had incorrectly assumed that the Sunday Times rates its articles out of 5 stars – a rating of 3 stars seemed in keeping with the tone of the review. But in fact, the key to the star system overleaf states:

*** Outstanding
** Good
* So-so
No star Give it a miss.

Which perhaps makes the review a little easier to stomach.. 🙂