FILM REVIEW: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (New Zealand, 2003)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Andy Serkis

There are so few third instalments of trilogies which genuinely work. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is an enjoyable disappointment, with good action sequences but a cliché-ridden plot ripped off from Peter Pan. Day of the Dead is less tense than its predecessor and less threatening in its political subtexts. And Army of Darkness is plain and simple pants. But with The Return of the King, Peter Jackson has done it: he has crafted a trilogy of masterpieces which also get progressively better.The Return of the King is the darkest and scariest of the trilogy, building on both the creepy supernatural elements of The Fellowship of the Ring and the frighteningly real battle scenes of The Two Towers. But it is not just a case of bigger or darker being better, for the film is also the most absorbing of the three when taken as a work of fantasy. Without wishing to insult the brilliance of the first two films, this climactic instalment is the one which immerses you most in Middle Earth. You stop using the brief lulls to process the allegory and use those instead as breathing points as the darkness threatens to engulf everything.

As with Two Towers, part of the film's success lies in raising the stakes faced by both the hobbits and the world of men. At the end of the previous film, Gandalf remarks that "the Battle for Helm's Deep is over... the Battle for Middle Earth is about to begin." The intensity and scale of the film, with many different races coming together and clashing, makes even the most elaborate and thrilling elements of Two Towers fee like an opening skirmish. You really get the sense of a world not only the brink of collapse, but teetering over the abyss like a spinning sword that must eventually topple.Return of the King achieves this through a number of openly scary scenes as Frodo and Sam inch further towards Mordor. Seeing Minas Morgul lit up in green light is creepy, and as the column of energy rises shrieking from the tower, you feel the shivers running down your spine. Shelob the spider is terrifying, and the quieter moments with her on screen are proof that this trilogy does not rely solely on its score to create tension. There is genuine, petrifying fear as she stalks Frodo on the narrow road to Cirith Ungol, even for the lucky ones who aren't arachnophobic.But the most chilling moment of the film comes, ironically, in the hottest place on Middle Earth. In the centre of Mount Doom, at the end of their quest, Frodo stands holding the ring over the lava, ready to destroy it. As the lightning flashes all around him, his face is lit up like a skull as pure evil dangles right in front of him. When he turns to face Sam, he has the look somewhere between a possessed man and a frightened child - and then he takes the ring, smiles and disappears. Just when we have been convinced that our hero will do the right thing, evil rushes up in one last subtle push, and delivers a blow every bit as shattering as the ending of Chinatown.So much of Return of the King explores the theme of temptation, broadening it out beyond Frodo, Sam, Gollum and the ring. Early on in the film Pippin looks into the palantir and almost loses his mind as he comes into contact with Sauron. This is on the one hand a dark foreshadowing of what will happen to Frodo, and on the other hand a reflection of the curiosity of Smeagol, a curiosity which eventually turned him into Gollum. But in the eventual fate of the latter, the film puts a clever twist on its running theme, portraying Gollum's temptation or desire for the ring as the ultimate cause of its defeat. Gollum gives into his own temptation and inadvertently redeems the world in the process.

The film also gives us a rich character study in the form of Denethor. The character is Lear-like in his rejection of one of his offspring at the expense of another, and both Boromir and Faramir have elements of Cordelia about them. His descent into madness, whether out of grief, despair or paranoia, is a truly Shakespearian descent, and there is a rich counterpoint between Denethor and Theoden. The former clings to authority for its own sake, believing himself to be more worthy than any heir and disregarding the well-being of his people. The latter doubts his worth as King of Rohan, marching to his own death if it will defend those he seeks to love and honour.In the midst of these two kings, we have the man who would be king (apologies to Sean Connery). Return of the King finds Aragorn wrestling with his own demons and identity, having to finally decide whether to accept his fate at all costs (as has Theoden) or to remain alive at the expense of his people (Denethor). The scene of Aragorn calling on the army of the dead is more than simply a test of physical courage. In summoning this army he is forcing himself to confront and accept the responsibilities and pressures that would come from being king; it is as much a rite of passage as the trial run for the final battle.These rich characters both old and new quickly find themselves in a series of brilliant battles. You quickly stop trying to spot which shots are with effects and which aren't because you're so caught up in the action, thanks to the flawless design of the creatures and the internal logic and spontaneity of the battles. But as before, in the midst of this darker, more serious tone, there is still so much of Jackson's humour in the film which means it doesn't have to be watched with a stony face. The on-going rivalry between Gimli and Legolas is great fun, particularly when the latter brings down an entire Oliphant. There are also further hints of Jackson's horror past: the club-handed orc captain resembles the aliens out of Bad Taste, and there are hints of Brain Dead in the dead army's design (but sadly, no kung foo-fighting priests).There has been much debate over the ending of the film, with even its biggest fans complaining that it is too long and baggy. When Jackson's latest film, The Lovely Bones came out, critics pointed to this section as the birth of an indulgent streak which had carried through into King Kong and finally caught up with him. But in fact, all things considered, it is the only reasonable way that it could have ended.

Firstly, the goal of the trilogy was to faithfully represent the book, taking creative decisions where necessary which retained the themes and spirit of Tolkien's leviathan. The decisions to leave out the scourging of the Shire, or the epilogue involving the deaths of all the fellowship, are as much about judging tone as judging an audience's patience. Jackson gets the balance perfect, with all the important stories being rounded off and all the other ones hinted at in a way which explains everything. It is important to see the reunion of Aragorn and Arwen, but the blossoming love between Eowyn and Faramir as less significant.Secondly, the slower, more dreamlike execution is these scenes is appropriate. After all the rapidly cut battle scenes, with every story intertwining from multiple camera angles, having scenes which are longer and more languid might seem anticlimactic. But the purpose of these scenes is to adjust us sufficiently to make Frodo's farewell all the more heart-breaking. At the heart of these scenes is Frodo's struggle to readjust not just to life in the Shire, but to life itself. The quest did claim his life as Galadriel predicted: not by physically killing him, but by eroding his very self until he can no longer function or belong in the real world. The elves become like the angels in Wings of Desire, observing Man's woes and preparing Frodo for heaven, that he need no longer suffer the pain of his wounds or the torment of his memories.The Return of the King is a magnificent climax to a wonderful series of films. There is not a single scene or shot which feels badly assembled or out of place, and as always the impeccable design will have you wide-eyed with wonder. But like its predecessors, The Return of the King offers so much more than dazzling visuals. From its first to last frame it holds your heart in the palm of its hand, its ability to scare equalled by its subtlety with themes, characters and story. A true triumph.

Rating: 5/5
Verdict: The perfect end to a perfect trilogy


Şenay Céline said...

I totally agree with you!At least i agree the parts that my english was enough to understand:)
What i love most about the third movie is that i can watch it over and over again because it has so many more sides than the other two; battles, journeys,funny moments,heart warming moments and scary moments,love,loyalty,glory sadness and the list goes on.

Daniel Mumby said...

Cheers for your comment Senay, glad you enjoyed my review :)

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