The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers ★★★★★

The difficult second album, as they say, is always the hardest. You break through with your first, filled with promise and interesting ideas, and next time out you've got to develop and grow while providing people with more of what they loved at the same time.

With Tolkien's book he had the benefit of essentially just splitting the work into three, knowing it was all just one whole, but Jackson and co., with their movie adaptation, need to provide a little more closure, a little more of a complete arc and something audiences will happy watch without leaving them feeling short changed or simply just waiting for the next instalment.

I've always struggled when people like to separate The Lord of the Rings trilogy into three distinct parts, asking me to pick a favourite or whatever, because ultimately they're not three parts but rather one whole. I don't believe I've ever sat down and just watched one of them. If I'm watching The Lord of the Rings then I'm watching The Lord of the Rings. You get me, bro?

So, as mentioned briefly in my review of Fellowship, the fact that Letterboxd doesn't have an option to just review the trilogy as a whole is probably one of the most frustrating things I think I'm likely to encounter this year. Sort it out, Letterboxd! It's infuriating.

Anyway, what's there to say about Two Towers that I haven't already said about Fellowship? Well, for one, Jackson and co. pull off the second album with style to spare. So effortlessly does the movie transition from the singular narrative thread of Fellowship to the multiple point of view stories Two Towers has to offer. The team make it look like a breeze, swiftly and easily switching from Frodo and Sam's aching, emotional journey to the heart of evil, through to Merry and Pippin's comical adventures with a talk tree and over to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimili's epic tale of battle and war.

None of these things should slot together as perfectly as they do here. It almost beggars belief that any of it works. And somehow the filmmakers manage to deliver it all while simultaneously building upon the themes, stories and arcs of the characters that we're set up in the first and introducing a wealth of secondary characters, all of whom become three-dimensional, important players within their own right.

And what's more, there's still world building, history, concepts and ideas all of which need to be gotten across and explained to the audience in order for them to understand a single thing of what's actually going on here. But the film never falters, it never feels overstuffed or in danger of collapsing under the weight of all this narrative, all these characters and all this mythology. Instead it just cruises along introducing new things as though doing so we're nothing.

I think where it's success lay is with it's commitment to our surviving Fellowship. Despite the fact that the fellowship has now been broken, the film ensure they remain our key points of view. Everything else happens around them, and we observe things as they observe them. From the utterly heartbreaking moment where King Theodon (an exceptionally fantastic performance by the ever brilliant Bernard Hill) mourns the loss of his son to the terrifyingly creepy and almost gothic Dead Marshes, each new piece of the puzzle comes to use through the eyes of the characters we spent all of the first film connecting with.

The other key component of The Two Towers success is in it's refusal to hold back. Things get dark. And you thought Moria was scary! At point Two Towers threatens to fall into full on horror mode, with unsettling imagery and darkly sinister plot turns that keep you uncertain as to whether things will actually come up as rosey as expected.

Jackson and co. take a far looser approach to the source material here and they're wise to do so. Shifting events as they are relayed in terms of the book on favour of a more linear structure makes sense, but it also always for more time spent on character development. And not just development of those characters we already know, we're introduced to several major plays and the film makes room for them to breath and become one with the narrative.

And then there's Gollum.

It's an absolute travesty that Andy Serkis didn't even get so much as a nod for his work here. His performance is outstanding. He brings a sadness and a heart to a character to wretched and dislikable that the fact we don't all hate Gollum should be enough to prove just how good he is. Whether he's talking to himself or engaged in banter with Sean Astin's loveable Samwise Gamgee, watching Serkis perform is an absolute delight, the kind of performance we don't get to see all that often.

The visual effects are stunning. The wow factor of the first is amped up here, and not just in terms of the incredible CGI or practical effects work on display, but the stunning scenery, incredible set design and wonderful cinematography that captures it all so beautifully.

The film climaxes with two epic battle scenes. One involving the talking trees known as Ents, headed up by new character Treebeard, who would be the best thing in any other movie but here is just one of many spectacular new additions to the cast.

The second is Helm's Deep. Arguably the most iconic of all battle scenes, there's just too many moments to list. From the unsettling silence before the battle begins, where rain patters on armour to great effect and stark lighting peirces through fog, to the jaw-dropping moment when the wall is breached and the utter hopelessness on our heroes faces as they come to accept this is a battle that can't possibly be won, every moment is as brilliant as the next.

And the filmmakers even find time to inject a little humour into the darkness, with Gimli unable to see over a wall or he and Legolas' competition to see who can get the most kills. All of it blends to expertly that the experience can be described as nothing short of exhilarating. And finally, when a surprising return character arrives at the eleventh hour to offer new hope, the sheer scope and scale of what's on display is truly breathtaking. I honestly don't think I've ever experienced anything quite like it, before or since.

The final moments leave us hanging on the edge of a cliff, uncertain of where this will go next and what perils our heroes will face in the concluding part, but after the horrors inflicted upon them in The Two Towers we're wondering how much more they can take. Sam's monologue about good and evil, played bittersweetly over images of heroics and hopeful fighters only serves to further emphasise the fear of what lurks ahead. By the time the credits roll only one thing is certain, Middle Earth (and modern cinema) will never be the same again.