Continuing my review of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Two Towers” continues this fantastic story, introducing new characters and containing some spectacular action sequences. There are more changes to the plot here than in the first film, though again many of them were in order to expedite the action without losing the main gist of the story. In this review I will mention a few of the standout actors, discuss some of the plot alterations, and talk about some fabulous action and effects.
Andy Serkis is fabulous. There could not have been a better Gollum. His portrayal is spot on in every respect. The original intention was that Serkis would voice the character which would be entirely CGI. However, and happily, that decision was soon changed to Serkis performing the role in a motion capture suit, which was then altered via CGI into the Gollum we saw. Serkis is performing the role physically as well as vocally, and the performance is truly a physical one, requiring the actor to crawl, roll around and put himself through a very strenuous performance, not to mention the voice performance causing havoc to his vocal cords. This film contains the brilliant, hilarious and yet disturbing scene where Gollum essentially fights with himself, the ‘Smeagol’ and ‘Gollum’ personas being two distinct personalities arguing about whether they should trust Frodo or kill him. Serkis’ fantastic acting is really on display here – he clearly distinguishes between the two characters in voice and mannerisms. Smeagol seems younger, almost child-like, desperate for some kind of connection to another person. Gollum is malevolent and old, entirely cynical and insistent on obtaining what they want (the ring) as they have always done, by murder. The apparent triumph of Smeagol here is, unfortunately, short-lived. Serkis expertly demonstrates Gollum’s duality – dual personality, dual motives, even dual emotions (ie hating and loving the Ring). He is fantastic to watch.
The second film introduces the people of Rohan to the story and a group of new characters. Again we have many excellent performances, but I especially want to look at Brad Dourif, playing the role of Grima ‘Wormtongue’, counsellor to King Theoden and spy for Saruman. Wormtongue is an interesting character. There are many examples in history of people betraying their country, and it is usually for material gain or ideology. There seems little indication in the film (or the book) that Grima is on Saruman’s side in any ideological sense, but we do learn he has been promised reward, including Eowyn. Again looking to history, misplaced love (or lust) has often been motivation for betrayal, so Grima’s motivation is not hard to spot. Dourif is brilliant in his slimy, sneaky portrayal of the traitor, managing to elicit in the viewer distaste and anger at the blatant corruption. Viewers of the film who have also read the book will know there is a key change in Wormtongue’s story, and while that takes place in the next film the seed is sown here. Wormtongue tells Saruman (after he has been kicked out of Edoras) all about Theoden’s plans, and all about Helm’s Deep. He watches Saruman concoct explosives, but scoffs that even breaching the Hornberg wall Saruman would need an army of thousands to take the fortress. Saruman then displays the army he has been cooking up in his lab (so to speak) and the camera lingers on Dourif for a moment, looking shocked, and a tear rolls down his cheek. This is important, because this is where (in the film at least) Grima is confronted by the reality of what he has done. We wonder if he always thought conquest would not lead to the extermination of his country, and now realises that is exactly what Saruman intends. We can speculate that he feels remorse, and that, in my opinion, is what Dourif portrays here and what the director intended. This is another spot-on performance.
Speaking of Helm’s Deep, this is a fabulous action/effects sequence that is just gripping from start to finish. I will admit that when reading the book I always struggled to picture the layout of the Hornberg fortress, but the film brought this to life in a way that is completely true to the book’s description. The advance of the orc army towards the wall, the siege-engines and ladders, the brilliantly choreographed fighting, the despair of the defending army, all of it is compelling and exciting. After the wall is breached and the battering ram takes down the gate, the surviving defenders gather in the fortress with little hope except for one – Gandalf said he would be returning at dawn the following day. This is juxtaposed with small moments that lend emotion to the battle – the recruiting of boys from the refugees to fight, often with their mothers screaming protest, the terror of the women and children hiding in the caves, the death of the elf leader Haldir. In spite of knowing how it would turn out I still find it to be as tragic as any historical battle.
This leads into a massive departure from the book – the arrival, under Haldir, of a contingent of elves to aid in the fight. I must admit, even though more elves are always welcome, I cannot see how this really advanced the story. In the book, other areas of Middle-earth was also under threat. Lothlorien, Rivendell, Mirkwood, Dale and Erebor are all attacked. There is no way elf soldiers could have been spared to travel to Rohan. This particular flaw is enhanced by the fact that after the battle no elf is around other than Legolas. Are we supposed to believe they all died? That is convenient. So, fun as it was, I do not consider this to be excused by the needs of adaptation to the screen. I would even go so far as to call it fan service. There is also a small section concerning Elrond and Arwen, when she is persuaded by him to leave for the Haven and leave Aragorn behind, she changes her mind enroute, and then that decision causes her to become mortal. It wasn’t necessary, in my opinion, and added to an already long movie. I think it was to enhance the romance between Aragorn and Arwen, which in the book is almost entirely behind the scenes. This again, may have been a studio decision in the belief that romance is necessary in a film. I don’t know. It wasn’t bad, as such. I would just say that, again, it did not further the plot.
Of course, I cannot talk about “The Two Towers” without talking about the Ents. They were done so well, again just as I had always pictured them. The effects work that brought them to life is absolutely superb, each Ent having its own unique appearance just as the book described. Treebeard was more comical in some of his words and attitudes than the book, but I don’t think it was too much. Again there were some small departures from the book here, but only those necessitated by the screen adaptation and condensing some areas that might otherwise have been too long and slow.
The late Sir Christopher Lee made a fabulous Saruman. He has always been a favourite of mine (I love the old Hammer horror movies) so I was very happy to see him in the role, which he fit like a glove. He fully embraced the arrogance of Saruman’s character, a level of treason far greater than Grima’s because Saruman is a Maia, sent to Middle-Earth specifically to combat Sauron. His lifespan is longer than the residents of Middle-Earth can conceive, his knowledge of the implications of the Ring is greater than most, and he has no excuse except for the desire for power and knowledge. His ‘partnership’ with Sauron was only for convenience, with neither Sauron nor Saruman intending to honour that arrangement. Lee fully embodied the immense pride of Saruman, who becomes yet another fallen Maia (like Sauron, like the Balrogs) and utterly fails at what he sets out to do.
(One of my favourite moments in this film is the shot of Saruman staring out from his balcony at the onslaught of the Ents, looking horrified. He wasn’t expecting that!)
The final massive departure in the film from the book was the behaviour of Faramir towards Frodo and Sam. This ties in with the way Denethor the steward of Gondor has treated Faramir his son, so I will talk about that more when I review the third movie. Faramir’s actions in the movie are logical in this context, but I am not entirely satisfied with the alteration of Denethor and the family dynamic.
“The Two Towers” is, again, an epic, amazing, exciting adventure. Scripting, casting, direction and effects all combine to bring Middle Earth to life. I remember leaving the cinema in 2002 and all I could think about was that it was a whole year to the final installment and how was I going to wait that long! A small aside – for all of these films, I do recommend the extended version. It’s a sizeable investment of time, but so worth it.