It’s hard being a critic at this time of year. The studios save all their best films for the big Oscar push; the indies suddenly find that their small movie is up for an acting award, and it gets a wider release. Suddenly every blooming film you go and see is getting a high score, being well made, polished, interesting, clever and satisfying. I like to mix in a little vitriol with my gushing, for the sake of journalistic integrity if nothing else. So it’s tough – tough I tell you! – to write another positive review, but here goes anyway.
Helena (Leonidas) is a fifteen-year old girl, working in her family’s shabby, struggling circus, who wishes she could run away and join the normal world. She particularly resents being made to dress up and perform every night and, in a typical fit of teenage pique, has a huge row with her mother Joanne(McKee). When Joanne mysteriously falls ill, Helena is convinced that it’s her fault. On the eve of he mother’s operation, Helena falls asleep, and dreams that she’s in a strange world, where her drawings have come to life.
In this world, the Queen of Light (Mckee) has fallen into an enchanted sleep, and darkness is taking over the land. The magical Mirrormask has been stolen, and it needs to be found for order to be restored. This new land is inhabited by a wide range of fantastical creatures including some very scary cats, flying books, sphinxes that prey on the books and giants. As you do when on a quest, Helena enlists support in the form of Valentine (Barry), a mysterious and not entirely trustworthy individual. Can Helena find the Mirrormask, restore the White Queen, and wake up in time?
Confession time: I’m a big – no massive, no enormous – Neil Gaiman fan. I discovered him through the novels and now have pretty much read everything he’s written. Reading Gaiman got me into comics and helped to make me the proud and happy geek that I am today. That said, and while I loved the dream/nightmare quality of Mirrormask, and its trippy, hallucinatory visuals, probably its weakest spot is the script. Gaiman and McKean seem to have fallen in love with their images to the point where they sort of lost sight of the story, which is a bit thin and confusing. The connection between dream and reality is not that clearly spelled out, and everything is resolved a bit easily.
But, quibbling aside (and with three films on their way, Gaiman will get better as a scriptwriter), Mirrormask succeeds in what it sets out to be, a sort of twenty first century Wizard of Oz. It’s wildly imaginative, especially considering the budget, and at its running time of 101 minutes it just about keeps it together. I’m still not a total lover of entirely CG films, but McKean has created a stunning landscape and done it for the equivalent of some brown paper and a bit of glue by Hollywood standards.
There are some wickedly clever moments, like Valentine’s time jump, and some typically Gaimanesque touches of humour. Gina Mckee doesn’t have loads to do, but she looks absolutely sensational as always, like a Klimt painting come to life, while Stephanie Leonidas is impressive as Helena and her dark twin. There’s also strong support in cameo roles from the likes of Stephen Fry and Rob Brydon. Mirrormask is an oddity, but what’s wrong with that? At least it’s a genuinely independent British film that tries to do something different. I can’t wait for Stardust (now casting) and Coraline (in pre-production) and Beowulf (currently filming). Go Neil.
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