The good, the bad, and the Ring: Re-evaluating Middle Earth – The Two Towers
AFTER tackling Fellowship of the Ring last time, we’re just about ready to clamber up the proverbial Ungol stair of The Two Towers. Unlike Peter Jackson and co, we won’t take more than three hours and we won’t cut out Sean Bean. Honest.
Daniel Abbott: The Two Towers is the difficult second film in the Rings trilogy, bridging the introduction of Fellowship and the climax of Return of the King with a stakes-setting monster. “The board is set; the pieces are moving,” intones Ian McKellen’s wonderfully-realised Gandalf, observing the retreat of the orcs into Fangorn Forest; perhaps this line encapsulates the film the best. Two Towers eschews the more meditative, atmospheric pace of Fellowship and gears itself for Return‘s world-ending finish, yet none of the poignancy and simple character moments are lost in its epic mesh of cataclysmic sturm und drang.
Bernard Hill’s King Théoden, a newcomer to the series, gives possibly the finest performance in a trilogy of exceptional performances, lending tragic gravitas to a man knowing he’s about to make his final stand. Any scene where he features is a standout, but my personal favourite is him standing beside his son’s grave and openly weeping. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and emphasises the humanity of these central characters, hammering home the importance of the trilogy’s central conflict and its consequences.
Elijah Wood and Sean Astin are, again, superb as Frodo and Sam, one of the most beautiful and moving friendships ever captured on film, with Andy Serkis’ stellar third-wheeling as Gollum throwing a hefty, Ring-shaped wedge into the equation. Viggo Mortensen is fantastic as an Aragorn slowly coming to terms with his kingly destiny, and the comic foils of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas and John Rhys-Davies’ Gimli provide welcome levity in a film otherwise preoccupied with grief, death, war and the end of days.
Christopher Lee’s Saruman is reliably chilling, of course, and Brad Dourif’s turn as the snivelling Wormtongue is lugubriously enjoyable. David Wenham and Karl Urban both excel as Faramir and Éomer respectively, the former in particular exploring the Gondorian’s deeply complex motivations.
But, for all the quality of the acting, it’s the action sequences that really set the pace and tone of Two Towers. From the introductory Balrog battle flashback – which still holds up as one of the finest introductions to any film – to the Warg confrontation to, of course, Helm’s Deep, the film pivots around the fulcrum of these enormous clashes. Helm’s Deep in particular is paced perfectly (at least in the theatrical cut), with natural rises and falls, triumphs and defeats; all credit to editors Michael J. Horton and Jabez Olssen.
Peter Jackson’s direction is epic in the traditional sense, with elegant tonal shifts and stunning visual virtuosity, with giant sets and beautiful New Zealand mountaintops. Howard Shore’s score is, of course, incredible. The special effects by Weta Digital are still astonishing, with particular praise going to the creation of Gollum. Though the Merry & Pippin sequences might occasionally and the Osgiliath section is a little overlong, Two Towers never overstays its three hour welcome. Its very limited problems are surprisingly exacerbated by the Extended Edition; easily the weakest Extended version of the trilogy, it still contains a memorable scene exploring the family relationship between Sean Bean’s Boromir, Faramir and Denethor (John Noble).
It’s sweeping in scope and exacting in its execution, holding the perfect middle ground between the bucolic pace of Fellowship and the frenetic, endless climax of Return.
Jozef Raczka: Pretty much the worst I can say about Two Towers is that it’s a stop gap. If we take Fellowship of the Ring as a pretty damn iconic opening and Return of the King as a nigh-on more iconic closer to this original trilogy, Two Towers feels like its job is entirely to shift all the pieces from their positions into those for the denouement of Return. I mean, it’s not to say that the film doesn’t justify its existence for the most part; the twin battles of Helm’s Deep and Isengard are both remarkably well choreographed, the developing bro-ship between Legolas and Gimli proves oddly furtive, fun ground, while the introduction of the wonderfully hateful Grima Wormtongue helped derive menace from a more minor but fruitfully physical source in comparison to the ever-present Sauron’s Eye of the Mysterons.
But does this all add up to a complete film? It’s a regarded fact that, originally, this film was meant to have events split over the end of the first film and the beginning of the second till it was decided that the series should be a trilogy. It’s hard to explain fully why, in comparison to The Desolation of Smaug, this feels like so much more of an unnecessary element, but we’ll get to Smaug in time.
I think, to fully explain it, we have to look at The Lord of the Rings as a whole story. In the traditional three act structure, the first act (Fellowship) is where we take the hero out of their natural situation and push them into the story and the third act (Return) is where the hero finishes their quest and comes home forever changed by the events. So, the second act is meant to escalate events for the climax but, by the end, should leave the characters at their lowest point, ready for the grand finale.
Two Towers complies with this on a structural level, but it doesn’t fully connect on an emotional one. Sure, we get to see the grand fellowship nearly overwhelmed at Helm’s Deep but then in rides Gandalf and his Eomer ex machina to save the proverbial day. It’s a grand moment, yes, but it feels undeserved, like a write-out to allow the heroes to be defeated but still ready to face their greatest challenge.
Now, I want everyone to know, I still really enjoy this film. What Andy Serkis does as Gollum still astounds me, everything is beautifully shot and as previously mentioned, Brad Dourif is great fun as Grima. It never ties together as well the others, but it’s a beautiful, unwieldy beast. Then again, being my least favourite part of these films (well, it’s no worse than An Unexpected Journey) is still pretty damn good. It’s Lord of the Rings for god’s sake.