Spoilers A Great But Imperfect Tale of Middle-earth - Two Towers Review

From the opening scenes of the The Two Towers, Middle-earth literally opens up into a vision of big skies and broad panoramas. And the viewer's immediate impression is that this movie is going to be all about "more is more." And the viewer will be right.

The armies are bigger, orcs smarter, violence grittier, the sense of evil more palpable, the cause more desperate.

And it's the same with the characters. Aragorn is nobler, Merry/Pippin have grown braver and more serious. And Gandalf... Gandalf the White as he now is walks in a power that shines with a brilliance like sunlight suddenly emerging from behind dark clouds.

It is impressive and dramatic and overloads the senses. All the elements of filmmaking come together so seamlessly to bring many, many wonders to life, moments where, if you could stop, you'd notice how cinematography brought you that sun which bathes the shot in a golden light, makeup put fatigue and the grime of battle on Aragorn's face, script writing made a memorable line echo in your mind, editing made the desperate chaos of a pitched battle real, and the musical score your heart to swell and tears to form behind your eyes. But you never notice till afterward... instead, once the lights go out you are sucked in, there in person, slightly breathless. You hear the hiss of the arrows flying past your head and can almost smell the herb Sam casts into the rabbit stew. And during some scenes unable to breathe at all, because the Eye of Sauron is upon you or there is a Nazgul in the air above.

And it's the same with the characters. Aragorn is nobler, Merry/Pippin have grown braver and more serious. And Gandalf... Gandalf the White as he now is walks in a power that shines with a brilliance like sunlight suddenly emerging from behind dark clouds.

I loved it. But when the movie stopped and I got out of my seat I felt... empty. I came away.... wanting more.

There were places where "less" would have been "more" and would have restored the balance in character or plot that had somehow got lost among all the wonders. Like Theoden's appearance while under Wormtongue's spell was extreme... and his return to his old self equally so. Fewer one-liners would have improved Gimli's character even more. And if the heightened drama in the scenes introducing new characters could have been lowered just a notch (or perhaps a scant minute or two more spent) perhaps these would have flowed more naturally then they did.

Both pacing and motivations are a continuing problem. Eomer, Treebeard and Faramir, for example, react with almost identical hostility and suspicion when first encountering members of the Fellowship, but each behaves inconsistently almost immediately after (i.e., Eomer gives strangers who could be spies in his land two horses, Treebeard continues holding onto and conversing with the two "little orcs" rather then squashing them like the others, etc.) If you go by just what the movie shows, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

And yet there were times, when "more" would have been more, and we didn't get enough. Take Faramir, for instance.

Like many weighing in on this issue, I concerned about how well the Faramir would be depicted, and having now seen how I believe that this concern was justified. In short, Faramir the Ranger of Ithilien, in any significant way that Tolkien conceived him, just doesn't appear in this move. It is not an acting issue - as David Wenham is competent and compelling enough. But the Faramir who was a foil for Boromir's "sword jock" style of leadership ... Faramir as the complex hero on a different path, of wisdom and philosophical insights not solely that of the warrior... he's just not there. Instead, we basically get Boromir-lite .... a hero who refuses to rethink his decision to send the Ring and its bearer to his father, closing his mind equally to Sam's plea for help and Frodo's gasping struggle to master himself after a bout with the The Ring, even as it happens in front of him. His characterization was a disappointment which could still be put right in either in the Special Edition or further along, in Return of the King, but frankly I'm not holding out much hope for it.

Something different by equally jarring happens with that other character where subtlety and shading is key - namely, Frodo. And here, to do justice to my reaction, I'm forced to separate the performance from the character. About the performance, I'm not sure I can come up with the right adjective. Amazing. Impressive. Volatile. There are scenes where Elijah Wood just ...shifts... right in front of your eyes from the boyish and innocent hobbit of the Shire... into another creature entirely... a tool of the Ring. And then back again. You see despair and distrust and ultimately violence in his face... and all in intimate close-ups where you can watch the transformation happen. It was disturbing and convincing and - notably in the scenes at Osgiliath - made my jaw drop and my blood run cold.

Yet even though this performance was among one of the finest in the movie, this was another place where less would be more. We get a darker, more despairing Frodo, but no transition scenes to show exactly how he got that way. Perhaps we are meant to assume this as a natural effect of crossing over into Mordor, but it seemed as though Frodo's hobbit personality simply evaporated overnight.

What's ironic here is that in TTT, while we finally get to see Frodo showing the qualities of leadership and strength of will which were missing in "Fellowship", less welcome is the inevitable conclusion that these changes might be originating from the evil of the Ring, a power which affects Frodo earlier and hits him a harder than in the book. The moments where we see what the Ring can do result in powerful, beautifully acted drama and angst... yet in the end we are left with the essential character of Frodo being diminished (again), especially with regard to his understanding of what is happening to him. Book Frodo was almost hyper aware of the effects of the Ring moment by moment... but in the movie there's a scene where Frodo snaps at Sam, and almost immediately after apologizes by saying "I don't know why I said that", and it falls to Sam to tell him - that The Ring is beginning to get a hold. The scenes evidencing a Frodo so unaware or so in denial show a Frodo as an already diminished hero, stripped of his wisdom and insights before even being allowed to fully grow into them., the picture further distorted by pointlessly reassigning these qualities to Sam.

Which brings us to that other Ringbearer - and probably one of the most amazing out of many amazing special effects. Gollum. I won't repeat the many raves already written about him as a technical achievement but just want to mention that what particularly impressed me what how well integrated and central this CGI character was in the themes of the story while never allowed to divert attention from them. The Smeagol/Gollum debate scenes were pathetic and funny and disturbing, and the fight scenes with the hobbits or the Gondoran scouts especially effective and believable. Gollum is hugely important to Frodo's story arc, because it is only by encountering Gollum that we see both Frodo's evidencing compassion and his growth from uncertainty into one that looks and acts the part of "Master" of the Precious.

However, here also, a lighter touch would have been better. Like the healing of Theoden, Gollum's transformation into Smeagol was too quick and too complete. With his wide blue eyes and his almost Muppet like affability, Frodo's compassion for him seems only sensible and fair, rather than the impressive leap of faith that it was in the book, and Sam's continuing suspicions seem mean spirited and unfounded.

Yet as the film wraps to its close, loose ends of three plot lines wrapped up in Sam's soliloquy about finding good in the world worth fighting for (something which sounds corny in print but which works remarkably well in the film in its role as narrative backdrop for a montage of scenes) .... I am reminded how everyone I saw the movie with, both at its opening day and then a second time after, were in either just a dumbfounded state of shock or such an emotional high that we could scarcely speak... and reviews suddenly seem pretty pointless, and criticisms quibbles.

The Two Towers is a work of art that, with all its shortcomings, transcends mere words and can only be experienced. It may not be entirely Tolkien... but it is pure Middle-earth, and is certainly filmmaking at its best.

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