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Thursday, 7 June 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo Del Toro

At some point in time Princess Moanna, the princess of an underworld realm, escaped to the surface but the sun wiped her memory and she died, unaware even of who she was. Her father, the king, knows that, even though she's dead, one day she will return. In the Spain of 1944 with the Fascists fighting the guerrillas in the mountains, a young girl called Ofelia has the magic in her to fulfil the king's expectations at last.

She's a reader, for a start, of fairy tales too, even though her mother seemingly doesn't understand the concept, and she follows her heart and a strangely cool bug that seems to have taken an interest in her. She has plenty to escape from too. Her father, a simple tailor, died in the war and her mother has married again, this time to a brutal and sadistic captain who is eager on her bearing him a son. The bug, which is perhaps some kind of fairy, leads her at night to a faun who opens her life up to huge possibility: she must fulfil three tasks and she'll be able once more to return to her palace.

The power here is initially in the story, which obviously plans to take us places we haven't been before. Guillermo Del Toro, not just the director but the writer too, wants to tell a fairy tale, but one for adults. This isn't just a happy, pretty story, it's dark and deliberately so to show us things that we've never seen, both of light and dark. There are things here that we can't unsee. But acting out this story aren't just really cool creature designs in sets full of wonder, however down and dirty they get, there are real actors too and good ones, even though I've not heard of a single one.

Ofelia is played by the twelve year old Ivana Baquero, making a serious impact in only her fourth film. I wonder what she thought watching herself accompanied by some seriously twisted creature effects! Sergi López is devastating as Capitán Vidal, truly someone to be afraid of and there aren't many of those in film, from any country. Apparently he's highly versatile but has made a career out of playing sadistic villains, to the degree that a serious paper has been written about him and the subject. Ariadna Gil, playing Ofelia's mother Carmen, is excellent but most impressive of all is Maribel Verdú, who as Mercedes is outwardly the Capitán's devoted servant but inwardly a key player in the fight against the fascists. She seems to have a serious career behind her and a serious heritage to boot, being related to a number of notable actors. She is absolutely believable in her role, giving the impression that she knows.

Del Toro knows too, because he isn't messing around here in the slightest. This isn't a sanitised kiddie story, telling something about life and death but with the death cut out of it. It's not even a translation of life and death into surrealism, like an Alice in Wonderland. It's life and death, in all its joy and pain, its danger and its reward, its black and its white. It has moments of horror, moments of real fear and moments of pure genius. It isn't unprecedented: there are references here back to fantasies as diverse as Alice, Beetlejuice and Spirited Away, probably it's closest real comparison, even a nod to Chinatown. There's so much here though that's completely new to justify its powerful reputation. It's very special and it's certainly the best film I've seen from last year thus far.

The only actor that I've seen before is one that I would never have recognised, partly because this isn't the first time that he's worn such an outrageous costume, whether fabricated or CGI. The faun that Ofelia meets, the Pan of the title, is Doug Jones, who has worked for Del Toro before, as the water dwelling alien Abe Sapien in Hellboy. I've seen him elsewhere too, a lot, in Tank Girl, Batman Returns, Men in Black II, Doom, Monkeybone and Mystery Men. They haven't always been large parts but I'll be damned if I can remember what he looks like in any of them. He would seem to be a solid choice to have played Cesare in the recent remake of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and he'll look completely different again as the Silver Surfer in the new Fantastic Four movie.

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