Made in Britain: Mirrormask (2005)
This is an odd one. I’m kind of a fan of Neil Gaiman, in that I’ve read a lot of his books (never the comics), but I always end them with a feeling that something isn’t quite complete, almost that there is a hollowness at the core of his work that just doesn’t really work for me in its entirety. On the screen, on the other hand, I’ve only seen Stardust, but that did work in my opinion and was a film I seriously enjoyed. So, when I approached Mirrormask, I did so with a fair degree of scepticism. The concept struck me as hugely derivative, and although I did like the mostly TV level British cast, I wondered how a film with a budget of $4m was ever going to translate the scope and imagery of the story to the screen.
Mirrormask as mentioned is hugely derivative, frankly. The main character is Helena, a very unhappy circus girl, who hides in her imagination and artwork. Her mother Joanne falls ill, and Helena is drawn into the world of her own drawings where the balance of light and dark has been upset. She hooks up with a weirdo juggler called Valentine and travels across the world to the dark palace. In the meantime, she meets a whole motley group of weirdos that are played by people from the circus. In the real world, in the meantime, she’s been replaced by Anti-Helena, who is the Dark Princess and the cause of the problems in the world, having thieved the Mirrormask in the first place. That’s right, think Wizard of Oz crossed with Neverending Story and a dash of Labyrinth.
This is a tough one to review, because I do admire much of it. The cast, in particular, featuring Stephanie Leonidas as Helena/ Anti-Helena, Gina McKee as Joanne and the two queens, Jason Barry as Valentine, and others such as Stephen Fry, Rob Brydon, Robert Llewelyn and so forth in minor roles are all reasonably good. Leonidas was in her early 20’s and adapts well to playing a 15 year old. It’s actually a bit of a shame that she’s not gone on to more, because she really is very pretty and clearly a competent actress. McKee is good, but shines as the Dark Queen- which is the most fun part, and Barry, while omnipresent can be a touch irritating, although his mask doesn’t help him.
Then there’s the script. This is also OK. It may be derivative as hell, being so easy to spot the inspirations, but there are many good lines in the film. Valentine’s explanation at Helena as to how can anyone know how you are feeling if you don’t wear a mask is a clever inversion of the norm with masks (metaphorical or otherwise) generally being used to hide your feelings. Helena’s exclamation about the behaviour of Anti-Helena is a cracking line, and the general plot of the film is obviously well considered.
What isn’t so well considered is the pacing. Mirrormask drags heavily in places, and has an episodic feel that doesn’t do the overall story any favours. It just seems to limp from one point to the next with little happening, and the action quite often feels like an excuse for lavish and elaborate imagery. There’s no sense of drive to the film, with director Dave McKean more than happy to just show us his fanciful oddities rather than inject any urgency into proceedings. The world is ending, because the balance has been upset, and Helena is on a quest to save herself and return to our world, and yet we never have any sense of the clock ticking. Even scenes such as the darkness taking the giant suffer from this seemingly sedate pace, as this should be a desperate race against time, yet it just doesn’t feel like it.
McKean has, on the other hand, created some fantastic imagery here with the Sphinx Cat or the Monkey Birds being weird and wonderful creations. However, there’s a serious problem to the cinematography. The world of the circus is bright, colourful and chaotic, yet on the other hand, the Dali-influenced world of the Mirrormask is sepia and dingy looking. This is almost a polar inversion of Wizard of Oz where Dorothy emerges from the black and white of her world into the glorious Technicolor of Oz. The vast majority of the film was done on green screen, for obvious budgetary reasons, but it all feels so lacking in colour that this amazing fantasy world doesn’t grab the attention, and just feels so drab. Which is a real shame, in my opinion, because the design is very, very impressive.
Overall, Mirrormask is another Curate’s Egg of a film, being good in parts. There’s plenty to admire here, but it feels a touch cold and I can’t think of anything really to love. I want to like it for the ambition and skill shown, but it’s simply to derivative and too dingy to really deserve any acclaim. At the end of the day Mirrormask is a thoroughly “meh” film. If you see it on the box, then it’ll pass the time in a painless enough way.
It’s a shame, actually, because there is the germ of something really quite special here and you can see all the component pieces in place, but Mirrormask simply doesn’t work.
Until next time,