Saturday 31 January 2009

No Such Thing (2001)

Director: Hal Hartley
Stars: Sarah Polley, Robert John Burke and Helen Mirren

There's a rule in monster movies that you don't show the monster until you've built up all the suspense and sown all the doubt you need. This one ignores that and begins with the monster, recording his thoughts into a microphone. 'I'm not the monster I used to be,' he tells us, after explaining why he's killed an American television news crew sent to investigate rumours of his existence in an abandoned US missile silo in a remote northern part of Iceland. He's incredibly strong, he breathes fire and he has horns; he also acts like a petty hooligan, partly because he's an alcoholic insomniac but mostly because he's ostensibly immortal without a purpose in life.

He sends his recording back to WRQE in New York and it ends up in the hands of Beatrice, the young lady who despite talent and education makes the coffee every morning. Beatrice is also the fiancée of Jim the cameraman, who was among the crew sent to Iceland. WRQE are a cynical news organisation run, it would seem, by a particularly cynical Helen Mirren, whose character is only named The Boss. 'It's got to be somebody's fault', she says when Flight 167 crashes in the North Sea. On that plane is Beatrice, who managed to persuade The Boss to send her to Iceland, but by some sort of miracle she survives.

She has a weird mix of incredible luck and incredible bad luck, and bounces between these extremes. It takes her forever to get to the plane, for instance, because the way is blocked to her by circumstance wherever she goes: whether it be by terrorists, extreme activists or drug addicts. Yet she makes it through because of sheer luck, only to get dumped in the sea when the plane goes down. She's the sole survivor, but is paralysed and crippled and damaged to no small degree. The hospital in Iceland manages to fix her up through innovative surgery and six months later she's heading on out to find Jim, in the helpful company of Dr Anna for the beginning of the journey. Dr Anna is played by Julie Christie, another major name in this quirky film to play a small role.

It's a strange tale, with obvious similarities to the Beauty and the Beast myth, but with more angles than that to bring to bear. Beatrice is no dumb Beauty and the Monster is not your run of the mill misunderstood creature either. However they definitely change each other's perspectives on life and death and everything in between. Beatrice is blissfully free of the standard nonsense that plagues most of the rest of humankind, much closer to the true human spirit of raw honesty. The Monster is a lonely creature, not because he's shunned by the rest of the world but because he's the only one of his kind, everyone else pisses him off and he can't even kill himself to put himself out of his misery.

It's also not restricted to an insular mansion. Once Beatrice finally finds her way to the Monster's island, not quite how she expects either, she doesn't stay there. Instead of killing her or falling in love with her or all the usual expected outcomes, he explains that he wants to die. He needs her to to find a doctor called Artaud, a scientist who's as crazy as a loon, who can make it happen, but she refuses unless he comes with her. So off they jet to New York, where nothing goes remotely how they expect.

This is a highly touching film, though bizarrely it's the human connections that elicit the most response rather than those involving the Monster. Perhaps his situation is just too alien for us to really grasp. To me, it's most special in the way that Beatrice connects to everyone around her, as her sheer unrestrained humanity makes her as alien from most people in the film as the Monster is. The magic is in the way Dr Anna becomes utterly supportive, even though the story is free from the usual Hollywood sentimentality; it's in the way that the kids wait outside the hospital to witness their miracle; it's in the way that she floats through life dismissive and forgiving of anyone who wishes her harm.

It's amazingly well cast. Sarah Polley is simply perfect as Beatrice and Robert John Burke is amazing as the Monster. He is uncannily good at portraying emotion, even though he spends the entire film stuck under a large amount of makeup, very much up there with people like Hugo Weaving in V for Vendetta or Andy Serkis in The Lord of the Rings, who thrived rather than suffered under similar hindrances. Neither Helen Mirren, Julie Christie or the many unknown and mostly Icelandic actors, steal the show, but what seems like everyone in the cast make their presence known.

It's also a very quotable film, written very cleverly and with the good fortune to have actors capable enough of delivering their lines with the right attitude behind them. Lines like 'She was spirited away by the ingenue', 'We'll call the network; they'll threaten someone' or 'Nobody's scared of me any more' seem like nothing written on the page here but are utterly appropriate in their context and delivered with panache so that they feel like genius. This is definitely a quirky film that people will happily quote around others who won't have the slightest idea what they're talking about. Oh, and we definitely need monsters.

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