WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: Brave hobbits Samwise Gamgee and tortured ring-bearer Frodo Baggins continue their arduous journey towards Mordor, where they seek to destroy the ring desired by greedy men and their untrustworthy guide Gollum alike. Meanwhile, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli become involved in the affairs of Rohan, a race suffering under an enchanted king and the threat of annihilation by Saruman’s 10,000-strong army of Orcs.
Once a carefree youngster in the picturesque Shire, life has become unbearably complicated for Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). The Fellowship accompanying him to Mordor to destroy a precious magical ring has broken up, with his great friend Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) presumed lost in the mines of Moria; his only companions are now fellow hobbit Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) and the wretched Gollum (Andy Serkis), whose mind has been warped by the ring’s lure. Despite Sam’s reservations, Frodo feels he has no option but to follow Gollum’s dangerous lead through mountain and marshland towards the Black Gates of Mordor; and though he gains some trust from the creature formerly known as Smeagol, their quest is hampered by outside forces. But what of the rest of the Fellowship? Hobbits Pippin and Merry (Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan) find themselves the possible lunch of Orcs, before they encounter any number of surprises when escaping into the forest. On their trail, the all-action team of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli (Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies) visit Edoras, where serpentine advisor Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) is ensuring that King Theoden (Bernard Hill) is too ill to notice that Rohan is being overrun by Saruman (Christopher Lee), in service of the evil Sauron. Theoden is brought to his senses and commands that his people retreat to the fortress of Helm’s Deep, Aragorn taking a keen interest in Theoden’s niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto). However, disaster strikes when Aragorn becomes an Aragoner in battle; besides, the innumerable army of Uruk-hai (Super-Orcs, basically) marching on Helm’s Deep is surely too strong for Rohan’s ill-prepared forces – unless help arrives.
If I didn’t make it totally clear during my review of The Fellowship of the Ring, I should reiterate what a fantastic job Peter Jackson, his writers and his army of sculptors, costumers, animators, caterers etc. have done in bringing the world of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to the screen. The Two Towers picks up where the first movie left off and for the most part continues to tell a fabulous tale, complex and sufficiently respectful of the source material to satisfy fussy fans, yet with enough pace, action and intrigue to keep casual moviegoers happy. Of course it’s a fantasy film at heart, but The Two Towers spans just about every genre of cinema: the wonderful use of horses brings the sweep of an epic Western to mind, while the immense, exhausting battle of Helm’s Deep has the intensity of a top-notch war movie; the grim scenes in the Dead Marshes and some of the Orc make-up are worthy of a horror film. There’s also devious politicking from the rulers of Rohan and a tricky love triangle between Aragorn, Eowyn and his forlorn Elvish love Arwen (Liv Tyler).
Best of all, all your favourite characters are back, including the not-as-dead-as-you-might-have-thought Gandalf; furthermore, the actors have grown into their roles, not that there was much room for improvement. And it’s a technical marvel: although Gollum is far from the first non-existent character to share screen time with actors (I’m thinking of Roger Rabbit, others may go back to Mary Poppins), he is both emotionally engaging and very, very nearly as real and convincing as Wood and Astin whom Serkis, motion-captured, acts against superbly. Just once or twice, Gollum’s a little too large in the frame or Wood’s eye line isn’t quite right, but it literally amounts to seconds in a three-hour movie that Jackson marshals with consummate skill.
That said, whereas The Fellowship of the Ring followed (more or less) a single plot line, The Two Towers goes off in several directions at once, resulting in a complexity which will please many but requires more exposition – Cate Blanchett pops up for a refresher – and makes for a slightly less thrilling experience. What with Frodo trooping to Mordor with Gollum, then being waylaid by David Wenham’s Faramir, and Aragorn considering what to about Arwen and Eowyn whilst fighting his guts out for Rohan, and Gandalf putting himself about generally, I felt that there was plenty to be getting on with without constantly cutting back to Pippin and Merry stuck up a tree – albeit a walking, talking tree with influential friends – all the blessed time. And because I wasn’t completely caught up by the movie, I started to notice other minor gripes: Rhys-Davies’ Gimli is literally belittled by the burden of being the comic character, while Bloom has graduated to looking around whilst apparently working out hard sums in his head (that is, when he’s not using a shield to surf down stairs at Helm’s Deep, a silly and incongruous stunt). I could also have lived without the cockney-voiced Orcs arguing amongst themselves. It all meant that by the time Frodo’s eyes were rolling in the back of his head and Sam was speechifying in Osgiliath (if that’s the name of the place), I was more than ready for the movie to wrap up, given that there was evidently much journeying still to be done.
I wouldn’t dare mention this film in the same breath as certain pirate-related middle movements, but for all its unquestionable class The Two Towers does have the inevitable sense of marking time until the big finish arrives. Nonetheless, the intrigues of Rohan and the fascinating duplicitousness of Gollum make this really good film worth a regular watch, while The Battle of Helm’s Deep is as good a set-piece as any in the series, or indeed any of the spate of The Lord of the Rings’ epic contemporaries (Troy, Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven etc.). And on we go…