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* * * * * (Herald Rating)
Frodo: Elijah Wood
Gandalf: Ian McKellen
Aragorn: Viggo Mortensen
Sam Gamgee: Sean Astin
Pippin Took: Billy Boyd
Arwen Undomiel: Liv Tyler
Eowyn: Miranda Otto

Directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair and Peter Jackson. Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. Running time: 210 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images).

We come to it at last, the great film of our time. The film which makes the heart leap, the tears flow, the adrenaline race like never before.

The film which makes you laugh out loud, cower in fear, feel dizzy with vertigo, and at the end - and be warned, it sure does takes its time to finish - feel exhausted, dazed and slightly thankful it's all over. At least, until those compulsory further viewings.

It's the one that makes you wonder: how did we get so hooked up in this imaginary world with its labyrinthine legends and its allusions to everything from The Bible to British history, its creatures great and small, its grand scheme of things.

Well, if memory serves, there were two films before this - in my book, one brilliant, one not quite so, in that order - and a certain hefty work of fiction before that.

So far as his history-making adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's book goes, Peter Jackson and his crew have saved the best and the boldest for last. And that's despite the final third of Tolkien's original work being where his story unravels.

Performance-wise, many of Jackson's cast - some of whom were previously sideline characters - shine like never before.

Among them Sean Astin as Frodo's companion Sam, whose character becomes something much more than the loyal simpleton of earlier episodes.

Likewise, Billy Boyd as Pippin gains in stature and sings a couple of songs while he's at it. Also outstanding is Bernard Hill as King Theoden, whose character has transformed from a wizened Lear to a heroic Henry V. He also delivers one of the great speeches to the troops ever committed to celluloid.

Some characters do fall by the wayside: Liv Tyler's Arwen becomes a passive near-sleeping beauty, while Eowyn (Miranda Otto), her rival for Aragorn's affections, gets to swing a very big sword.

There are more deeper, darker Shakespearean overtones to this, as Middle-earth politics, loyalties and blood ties become more complex.

That resonates especially in the sub-plot involving the Steward of Gondor, Denethor (John Noble) and Faramir (David Wenham), the son he wished were dead rather than his slain brother Boromir.

The Return of the King may be following several strands of story - part of the slight undoing of the previous film, The Two Towers - but here it interweaves them with deft precision, using what it needs from the previous books and pacing most of its long running time in exact swings of tension and release.

That's right from the opening sequence, in which we meet Smeagol in his pre-Gollum days and are reminded of the devastating power of the ring, as well as seeing a little more of where actor Andy Serkis ends and the magic of Weta Digital begins.

We are every stumbling step of the way with Frodo, Sam and Gollum as they head towards Mt Doom. We're also there, with the rest of the scattered fellowship, preparing for the showdown against the mounting might of Sauron.

"We come to it at last, the great battle of our time," says McKellen's Gandalf as he sees the forces mount on the vertiginous city of Minas Tirith. It is a great battle. It makes The Return of the King a great war movie - the thrill of the horse charge of the Rohan warriors, the chill caused by the devastating stomp of the elephant-like Mumakils as they counter-attack.

It takes a certain matinee idol elf to bring one down in an eye-popping action sequence. It's topped off with a priceless one-liner by his short mate Gimli.

The Battle of Pelennor fields also comes with troll-powered catapults, and pterodactyl-like beasts piloted by Nazgul led by the Witch-king Angmar, the baddest of the Lord of the Rings baddies yet, though he has some competition from Orc captain Gothmog whose visage seems a tribute to the Elephant Man.

Both are played by Lawrence Makoare who played orc Lurtz in the first film. If there's a prize for most makeup-tolerant actor, he deserves it.

If it's a great war movie, it's quite a horror film, too. First there's the Army of the Dead who are summoned by the man who would be king, Aragorn, for the final showdown. Some business to do with an old curse apparently, but they are a visually arresting bunch whose special effects hark back to Jackson's The Frighteners.

Then there's Shelob, the giant spider into whose lair Frodo is led by the treacherous Gollum. It could have gone all very B-movie at this point, but with the combination of creature and choreography, it's something more akin to Alien.

But there are visual moments that are arresting for their simple beauty, such as the lighting of the beacons - mountain-top bonfires which presumably used the Southern Alps as their backdrop and on screen look like a high-concept art piece.

As in the book, it does take a while to find its ending, even without including episodes such as the scouring of the Shire, which were discarded by Jackson and his co-writers.

If it takes a while to wrap up, then again it is the ending to what is effectively one very big movie. It should be allowed a few curtain calls.

If it takes its time to roll the end credits, for much of the film it is beyond exhilarating and certainly the best of the three, effectively elevating the series into the greatest trilogy in cinema history.

The New Zealand Herald

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