You Cannot Always Be Torn In Two
Return of the King Reviewed
Embassy Theatre, Wellington
November 29, 2003
“I’ve seen FX – I know what cool stuff looks like. I don’t care how pretty your christmas decorations are: if the tree is dead, the tree is dead. You can hang as many pretty baubles on it as you like, but that’s still a dead tree.” – Ben Wootten, Senior Designer, WETA Workshop.
This quote pithily encapsulates the greatest fear I had about Lord of the Rings – that it might turn into an action/FX fest without a depth of characterisation to make it more than junk food.
Sure, junk food is tasty in its way, but what I most enjoy is a delicious meal prepared by a skilled cook. Cuisine rather than junk food – this was my secret hope for LoTR. And my secret fear.
In fact, I went into the press screening of Return of the King more concerned that I might not like it, than expecting that I would enjoy it.
Nevertheless, I wanted to give the film every opportunity to shine – both individually and as an arc of three films with its siblings – Towers and Fellowship.
But I felt no certainty that it would. The thing is, I didn’t like Towers that much – I felt it suffered from junk food syndrome, elevating action at the expense of character. And when I first saw Fellowship, all the textual deviations prevented me from really enjoying what was going on. In the end, I feel Fellowship is a good film, but I’d never liked a Rings film on a first showing.
So there was more than a bit of trepidation within me when I wandered up to the Embassy Theatre in Wellington on November 29. I didn’t want it to suck, but there was always a chance that might be the case.
By the by, the refurbished Embassy is absolutely gorgeous. If you’re ever in Wellington, you must check it out. The seats are wondrously conmfortable. Roomy, large … and leather!
As the 200-300 Australian and New Zealand press take their seats, the lights start to go down. There is warm applause as the New Line logo flashes up on the huge screen … and we begin …
About three and a half hours later, I emerge feeling pleasantly surprised.
Now, this may feel like faint praise – it is not.
I never expected to like and enjoy Return of the King on the first viewing. I expected to feel far more conflicted when I walked out into the fading sunlight on Courtney Place. Yet that was not the case. As I walked out I was … at peace.
The answer is very simple – Return of the King is largely character driven. And the performances, dialogue and emotional impact is sufficient that – for me – it outweighs the deviations from the text.
And indeed, despite the deviations, it still feels largely true to the “spirit” of Tolkien. Of course, a term such as “spirit” is easily written, much harder to nail down definitely. But what I mean is that themematically it reveals many of the same lessons about power, death, corruption, forgiveness, loss and redemption that I believe lie at the centre of what Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings conveys to the reader.
And there are some major deviations – both sins of commission and sins of ommission. Not a lot, but some of these instances will have people (both “purists” and not-so-purists) jumping up and down for weeks.
But I discovered at the end of the film that these deviations didn’t matter so much in the balance of things.
Return of the King flows smoothly from scene to scene. Yet it rarely feels rushed – a remarkable effort in distilling so much into such a compact space. Yet, just as importantly, it doesn’t drag. There aren’t lengthy self-indulgent battle scenes, and virtually all the major and minor characters get plenty of screentime. (Eomer and Faramir are perhaps the two exceptions – they both get cyphered substantially)
What’s more, it is a great ensemble performance. To me, Towers felt like it was overshadowed by the power of Andy Serkis’ performance as Smeagol/Gollum. Return of the King, on the other hand, does not belong to any single actress or actor. I think this is a good thing – it’s how it should be when you have so many strong characters in a script.
And although this may cost it awards, in truth Astin and McKellen are just as impressive as Mortensen and Wood. Noble really is Denethor (albeit it an abridged version that plays up the madness and despair at the expense of his inner nobility) and Hill and Otto are also quite wonderful.
I think some dramatic tension is lost after the climax at Mount Doom – several of the press people observed that there seemed to be several endings. It is a noticeable thing, though of less concern and confusion to one who has read Lord of the Rings. But I don’t know how I would have done it differently.
Regardless, the ending is as poignant as anyone could wish for, and I doubt that anyone will complain on that account.
Frodo says near the end: “Sam, you cannot always be torn in two …”. This was my moment of clarity; the point where I realised that just like Sam, the viewer has a choice.
Will you accept the idiosyncracies in Jackson’s vision? Will you accept the differences in his filmic adaptation/interpretation of the text?
I’ve stopped wanting the film to be the book. I am at peace. I liked Jackson’s Lord of the Rings for what it is, rather than mourning it for what it is not. In this sense, my journey has been as long as Frodo’s, and just as painful as well. It’s not been completed without loss, confusion and annoyance.
But what of you?
I don’t know your answer. That’s your choice to make. But do go. you’ll be delighted in parts, disturbed and confronted in others.
And like me, you might also emerge at the end feeling “pleasantly surprised”.