The characterisation of Denethor seems to have ignited both controversy and discussion among Tolkien fans the world over. But is John Noble pleased with the result, and with Return of the King?

“I think the film is a very fine piece of theatrical release cinema,” he says. “Given that you have to constrict the thing to three hours fifteen max, obviously there are things within it that will be expanded upon as in the other ones. However, I think what they’ve done is a beautiful piece of work.”

The film is fresh in his mind, he’s just seen it the day before this interview – a roundtable session in Wellington with Australian and New Zealand press the day before the World Premiere.

“When I saw it yesterday afternoon for the first time,” he tell us. “It didn’t feel like a long film. This is part of the genius of Jackson.”

Still true

Naturally, he’s aware his part is “diminished” from what was filmed.

“When you go and see something and you see some stuff is missing – stuff that you worked your butt off on – you think ‘disappointing’. But then when I went and saw the film, I understood every choice that he’d made. And I thought well, in the greater scheme of things, he’s made the right choices for cinema release.”

And to him, the part still feels true.

“It does [feel true] to me, but subtextually obviously there are things in there that the average viewer … the average viewer is going to need baddies. And Denethor will be seen as a baddie,” he admits.

“Because he does come across as pretty horrible.”

My mind flashes back to something he said in an interview just a few months before in Canberra, which goes to the core of Noble’s work on Rings.

“Obviously the kids are gonna says he’s a shit. But other people might go ‘Oh my god.’ They’ll be moved but they don’t know why because they want to hate him because he’s so cruel. But if they get inside his head and they see what’s going on. It’s horrible stuff. And his relationship with David Wenham and what’s going on there – and [with] Billy.”

But being likeable was never important.

“I don’t really care whether people like Denethor or not. But I do want them to think he’s a very truthful character. And I do want students of film to look at that character and say that is a character of enormous depth.”

“If we can leave a legacy like that, then we’ve done something really good. We spend so much of our time doing crap. Well, not crap, but you go on make a living doing bits and pieces of television and all that. And that’s fine. But it’s a cakewalk compared to this sort of stuff.

“The hardest thing I’ve done in a long time”

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve done for a long time. I did some very hard stageplays when I was back doing stage a lot. Really hard stuff. The trouble with film of course is that it’s done over such a long period of time. On stage you can go there, do it and you’re out of it. Whereas with Denethor particularly, it was all shot out of sequence. They like you to do your death scene first. And what I then had to do was trace back and do a timeline.

“‘That’s how I was in that scene. And so I’ve got to go back, back, back … So how am I here?’

“Even things like … how many days it’s spread over. What are the catalysts that click in? … But going backwards was really strange … And that’s your job. Even though the audience only sees the snippets of your life, your life has been a continuum of descent or ascent, or whatever. And you need to be able to pick that up so it’s almost like a seamless thing. It doesn’t matter how far these things are apart.

“But it is a challenging profession. I made the comment … about when the bar gets lifted – and the bar was lifted [on this production]. And I’m very proud of Denethor. Very proud of what happened. He … upsets me. Here. He really upsets me. But I’m proud of it.

“If … in your life you do one thing that’s some of your best work … we’re lucky people to have done that. And I’ve got no doubt that I’ll do many more, but that to me – because it was so hard – will be the defining one, I think.”

“Don’t you talk nastily about Denethor …”

Back on the day before the premiere in Wellington, John defends the honour of Denethor against one radio reporter
who jokes about the bizzareness of him burning his son while “his castle’s being attacked.”

John chuckles as he replies: “Don’t you talk nastily about Denethor, I love him.”

He then continues more seriously. “He’s an amazing character. He’s probably the closest thing to King Lear, which is my one remaining dream to play. I’ve played Gloucester, but I haven’t done Lear yet. And I understand totally what happens when you ‘click’. You just start to make the wrong choices. The paranoia sets in.”

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“I guess he’s going to come off as a villian, but I think in time as these films are studied more – and they will be – I think people will have a slightly different perception of him.

“People will see a little bit more of the humanity within him.”

Yet people may at first find it difficult to find humanity within a character in such a state of despair; who – right from the moment we meet him – seems totally wrapped up in his internal pain. John says he doesn’t snap out of it, even when his son returns from Osgiliath riddled with arrows.

“I don’t think he realises he’s being an idiot at all until that last defining moment when he looks down and sees his beautiful son. Up until that time he’s just self obsessed.

“Two lines to redeem yourself”

“And isn’t that the hardest thing in the world?” John asks. “You’ve got two lines to redeem yourself: ‘Faramir, my son’.

“And I used to think about that. And that’s it – that’s the redeeming moment. And it’s a real challenge just to find – while burning – to find this redeeming moment: “Faramir, my son.” But again, for the discerning viewers, eventually that may work.

“[It’s a] terribly emotional scene – and just before that I think he gets up and he’s been hit off the pyre by Gandalf and he gets up and he has this look: ‘No, do not take my son from me.’ It’s agonising.”

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I wonder if whether he means agonising to watch, agonising for the character or agonising to portray this sort of emotional and physical extremity. Again, my mind flashes to a comment he made in Canberra.

“There’s a gorgeous line at the funeral pyre – he says something like … he looks down and he says: Why do the fools fly?” I think is the line he says. “Let it burn, for burn we must.”

“It’s an incredibly desolate line he comes out with. Desolate stuff. Bottom of his soul stuff. And yeah, it is demanding. Really demanding to find the truth in that.”

“When Billy sang that song …”

One of the most affecting parts of the Return of the King for many is when Billy Boyd sings for Denethor. Back in Wellington, John mentions that even he found it difficult to keep his composure for that scene.

“When Billy sang that song, you went: ‘Oh my god, that’s so beautiful’. But when I was doing it [the filming], … I started to cry … it was so beautiful.”

“And it was just so poignant to have the counterpointing of those three images of Denethor, Faramir and little Pippin.”

He’s full of praise for the entire sequence.

“I think I’d mentioned to you before that that was in my mind when we did it that that was going to be a great film scene. And I think they’ve done it.”

And if you’re curious about what he was eating – it wasn’t chicken.

“It was quail or something,” John says. “It was very exotic.”

John’s time is up, but he has a few parting words before he moves on.

“It’s an amazing story,” he says. “An amazing story of hope. And I think the reason it’s successful not so much to do with what we’ve done, but with whatever was bloody channelled to Tolkien … to create this enormous metaphor.

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“To create this piece of literature is astounding. And that’s why I miss certain lines that aren’t in the film – because they can’t be. Profound. Profound wisdom that JRR had.”