The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (12A)
Arguably the most anticipated sequel in movie history, this third and final film in Peter Jackson’s trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings could well be the motion picture event of the decade.
Boasting action and character in equal measure, and with a considered and much-honed script, The Return of the King proves that there is still a place for old-fashioned storytelling amidst cinema’s new computer-dominated age.
Bookended by a prologue and epilogue, The Return of the King picks up directly after the conclusion of The Two Towers. Hobbits Frodo and Sam, aided by the wily Gollum, continue their quest to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring. Meanwhile Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, along with King Théoden of Rohan, prepare to make a stand at the great citadel of Minas Tirith where, they know, the forces of Sauron will soon attack.
Overwhelmed, hopelessly outnumbered but brave to give the hobbits enough time to reach Mount Doom, they lay out a plan to make a final desperate stand against the legions of evil. As Gimli puts it: “Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?”
At 3hrs 21mins, The Return of the King is the longest film yet but such a lengthy running time is necessary to fully realise the sweep and majesty of Jackson’s vision, which is astonishing. The relentless action combined with the emotion of the story is a rare thing, but Jackson pulls it off.
The fragmented nature of Tolkien’s vast narrative, with numerous stories being told in parallel, means the film does not always keep up its energy. Still, there are more than enough moments of wonder to keep the eyes popping and the attention firmly focused on the screen. In other words, make sure you visit the toilet before the film begins. You won’t wish to leave while it’s on.
Key moments in this brilliant slice of fantasy include Aragorn’s raising of an army of ghost warriors, his stirring ‘Crispin Crispian’ speech at the dread Black Gate, the advance on Minas Tirith, seen from the air, the stalking of Frodo by the giant spider, Shelob (easily the film’s most frightening moment; arachnophobes beware), Legolas single-handedly bringing down an elephant-like beast, and, most memorable, the mammoth final battle on Pelennor Fields.
This is what Tolkien is about, and Jackson has outdone everything from Spartacus to Zulu in his scope. Throw in moments of historical accuracy – Orc artillerymen play psychological mind games with their human foe by using the severed heads of Rohan riders as ammunition for their catapults – and The Return of the King becomes nothing less than mesmerising.
Performances are, like in The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, universally excellent. This is a company of actors that should, in an ideal world, receive a group Oscar. Nevertheless, one talent shines brighter than the others, and that is Sean Astin, playing Sam.
In a film that rests its burden on the emotional journey travelled by its characters, Sam personifies truth, loyalty, friendship, love, courage and honour.
With The Return of the King, Peter Jackson has completed his own unique and personal quest: to put Tolkien on screen. The journey is over. Or is it? Tolkien’s prequel, The Hobbit, remains to be filmed, and Jackson has expressed interest. So there may well be more to come.
Star rating: *****