Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Return of the King


Debbie Reynolds came over to Chateau Maine for tea yesterday. It was ostensibly a social call, but I'm sure she was really trying to unload some of her tacky movie memorabilia on me. I did promise to buy and preserve my old tap costume from the undersea crustacean ballet in Dangerous When Damp and loan it out to her museum whenever she finds it a new home. We hadn't seen each other for a while so we took some time catching up with each other and I let her know about the recent spate of paranormal phenomena in the house stemming from the return of Norman's ghost. Norman then obligingly put in an appearance, drifting through the powder room door and asking where the Tanqueray was before evaporating. 

Rather than being flummoxed, dear Debbie was most intrigued. She insisted I telephone a friend of hers, a Madame Arcati who is most experienced in these supernatural occurrences. She swears that this mystic should be able to get my household back under control. Norman responded by dropping a few of the crystals off of the chandelier in the foyer. Fortunately, only one of them shattered on the terrazzo and I have replacements that I picked up cheap at the Elton John sale a few years back. We decided to continue our conversation outside of the home before Norman could move on to anything heavier - like the Chippendale chairs and headed off to tea in Westwood. 

While there, we noticed that it was opening day for the final part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King. As neither of us had a dinner engagement, we decided to settle in for the film with a large tub of buttered popcorn and a jumbo box of Junior Mints. The film clocks in at well over three hours so we made sure to take a potty break first, so as not to have to leave our seats during an exciting battle sequence. 

The Return of the King is the final part of Peter Jackson's monumental film version of J. R. R. Tolkien's celebrated novel. It follows the earlier films The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers (reviewed earlier in this column) and not only stands alone as a classic of epic filmmaking, but also as the crowning achievement of one of the most ambitious and artistically successful film projects of the past century. As previously, Jackson structures the film in such a way that it will be understandable to those who have not read the novel or seen the earlier films, but to fully appreciate the magnitude of the work, the films need to be seen together in sequence. Only then are the themes of love, loss, redemption, change, nature versus industrialism, and the need for cooperation and mutual assistance become clear. 

The final film picks up where The Two Towers ends. After a brief prologue where we learn the origins of the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis and wondrous CGI interacting) and how he came to be in possession of the ring of power, we return to our various heroes. Frodo (Elijah Wood), the hobbit who is trying to take the ring into the evil land of Mordor to destroy it along with his faithful companion Sam (Sean Astin), is trying, with Gollum's aid, to sneak over a hidden pass near the haunted city of Minas Morgul, home of the dreaded Nazgul, not knowing that it's the lair of the dreaded Shelob, a rather nasty arachnid. The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), having rallied the men of Rohan to victory at Helm's Deep and taking control of Isengard, imprisoning Saruman, races to rouse Gondor to defend itself against an onslaught from the forces of Mordor, taking the hobbit Pippin (Billy Boyd) with him. There he finds the defenses in disarray as the Steward of Gondor, Denethor (John Noble), seems driven by madness and grief over the death of his son Boromir (Sean Bean), rather than logic. (The reasons for this, while clear in the novel, are opaque here - let us hope the extended edit clears this point up.) Denethor is portrayed as much more callous and evil in the film than he is in the novel, almost nonchalant in the way he sends his surviving son, Faramir (David Wenham) out to almost certain death. 

Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), heir to the kingdom, is persuaded by Elrond (Hugo Weaving) to reclaim the kingship for the love of Arwen (Liv Tyler) and the necessity of victory if Arwen is to survive (a plot point not in the novel, but one which raises the emotional stakes.) He sets out with companions Legolas, the elf (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli, the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) to raise the army he will need to defeat Mordor and save the city of Minas Tirith. This army he acquires from a rather unexpected source. This leaves the army of Rohan, under the command of King Theoden (Bernard Hill) and his nephew Eomer (Karl Urban)to race to Gondor's immediate aid. Tagging along in disguise are Eomer's sister Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and the hobbit Merry (Dominic Monaghan). Soon armies clash in a huge battle under the walls of Minas Tirith. 

Some characters win, some lose, some live, some die, some are wounded with hurts which will never heal. All of them are transformed as the story heads towards its inevitable Gotterdammerung conclusion with fireballs, rivers of lava, and the collapse of fortresses. As in most stories of this kind, good wins out, but not without cost. Students of film may find the last twenty minutes a bit of an anticlimax. After the end of the quest, there are a number of vignettes tying up the loose ends of the story. Even with the elimination of a major subplot, known as the scouring of the Shire, it's the one part of the film that seems to drag a little and the inclusion of the very last scene, put in mainly to keep the novel's last line intact, seems unnecessary, the penultimate image being much more moving, and, without the scouring of the Shire being included, it's not as necessary for theme. 

The quibbles - minor deviations from Tolkien's plot and characters, an extraneous moment or two, the constant use of Gimli for comic relief, some unnecessary operatics surrounding the death of Denethor - are minor compared to everything that goes right. The sweeping visuals (New Zealand standing in for Middle Earth) continue to inspire. The centerpiece of the new film is the city of Minas Tirith (briefly glimpsed in The Fellowship of the Ring), a Romanesque/Byzantine confection of white marble and gray stone straight out of the paintings of Alma-Tadema. The intricacy of the sets and models used shows the unsurpassed craftsmanship from Jackson's Weta workshops in New Zealand. Buildings, armor, horse trappings, implements of magic were all designed and built by thousands of Kiwis working together to bring the world of Middle Earth to life and it all looks very real and very used, not like painted Styrofoam and plywood. (Well, maybe the Gray Havens set should have had a bit more attention...) The collisions of huge armies on the field of battle, even though the intellect knows they're digitized soldiers, sweeps you up in its grandeur. 

Fran Walsh (Mrs. Peter Jackson) and Jackson collaborated on the screenplay with Phillipa Boyens. How they managed to convert Tolkien's stately Victorian type prose to the requirements of film making remains a model of adaptation. Their changes from the text, re-emphasis of characters, and delineations of plot, while possibly offensive to some purists, make this film and the trilogy dramatically stronger. I think Tolkien would understand the necessity for treating film differently than literature and would have approved. Jackson intercuts the plot lines in such a way that each story and setting remains clear, and there's rarely a flag in action or narrative drive. I barely noticed the length of the film. 

In terms of performance, Ian McKellen's Gandalf, often on the sidelines in The Two Towers, comes into his own as wizard and general. Whether dashing hither and yon on his white stallion, or trying to get recalcitrant humans to get off their duffs and do what must be done, he moves from wisdom to anger to profound understanding of the human condition, often in the space of ten seconds. The other revelation is Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn. He finally comes into his own and it becomes clear that he has not only the courage and strength, but the soul and humility to become king and inspire a fractured people. His eyes hold joy and pain and inspiration all at once, and when he finally attains his love and his destiny, there's not a dry eye to be had in the audience. Elijah Wood's Frodo completes his transition from boy to man with grace and calmly projects the torture that bearing the ring brings. 

This film firmly belongs to the four hobbits and most of the great events are seen from their points of view. Each in turn has their moment of choice, their moment of pain and their moment of valor and, in the end, it becomes clear that no one of them could survive or do what needs to be done without the others. Various parallels to the British holding out against World War II have been drawn over the years and it's easy to see them. Jackson also doesn't flinch away from the deep emotional bonds that can occur amongst men, a subject not often touched by Hollywood as dramatizing them often requires a certain homoeroticism with which the studios are uncomfortable. These moments are valid and right and I was pleased to see them included. 

Peter Jackson has not disappointed his audience and the entire trilogy has the word 'classic' stamped all over it. When all three films are available in extended edit DVDs, it may require eleven or twelve hours to sit through the whole epic, but the experience will be well worth it. 

Gollum Ethel Merman moment. Murder by strangulation. Dead army. Charging horsemen. Screeching dragon beasts. Evil green energy beam. Snarling wolf battering ram. Steward flambé. Topless Frodo. Ring stealing. Quarrelsome orcs. Catapulted heads.

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