Recommended Viewing Situation:
On a bed of moss inside the hollow trunk of an old, gnarled yew tree, lit by a full moon.
Running time: 119 minutes.
Format: Colour 35mm Print. Arriflex 435 ES with Zeiss Ultra Prime and Variable Prime Lenses.
Director: Guillermo del Toro.
Writer: Guillermo del Toro.
Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro.
Awards: Three Oscar wins for Best Achievement in Cinematography, Best Achievement in Art Direction, Best Achievement in Makeup. Nominated for three others.
Franco’s Spain in 1944 and little Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her mother (Ariadna Gil) arrive at a government outpost in the countryside to start a new life with the latter’s new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). He is a government officer whose job is to control anti-Fascist rebellions.
However, Captain Vidal does not confine his Fascist sadism to working hours and he is the archetypal cruel step-parent. Intelligent and sensitive, Ofelia escapes fear and loneliness through books.
Fantasy meets reality when a fairy leads her to an overgrown labyrinth in nearby woods. Pan (Doug Jones), a faun reminiscent of Tom Bombadil in purpose, tells Ofelia that she is a princess who has lost her way. He gives her the first of three tasks to complete, so that she can resume her royal title. Meanwhile, Vidal’s housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) is busy with the sub-plot of anti-Fascist rebels also living in the nearby woods. She acts as a mole, ferrying information and food to them.
This dark, magical tale straddles many genres. It is a war film, a drama and arguably a horror movie. Director Guillermo del Toro describes it as a parable, influenced by fairy tales. With good versus evil, dangerous assignments, a royal family, strange creatures and magic, I see it as a fairy tale. The co-existence of two plots, one in the real world (above ground) and one in the fantasy world (below ground) makes it spellbinding. The fantasy world is echoed in the real world; the presence of evil is powerful in both, but the presence of good is a growing force too.
Our heroines take risks to fight evil and restore order: Mercedes faces danger above ground whereas Ofelia faces danger both above ground and below ground.
Baquero cultivates an overwhelming sadness as Ofelia, presenting a pathos you’d expect with the name of one of literature’s most tragic characters. Verdu plays her only friend in the ‘real’ world, Mercedes, with quiet strength, bravery and compassion. Lopez, as the Captain, is so lacking in redeeming features that he is like a fantasy monster, especially when he suffers a disfigurement which makes him beast-like. His character is uncannily similar in behaviour to one of the monsters below ground. Jones is refreshingly grumpy as the authoritative yet dependable Pan.
The special effects are bewitching. Feisty fairies, versatile eyeballs and a mandrake root you want to adopt: this is where Del Toro shines. Animatronics, make-up and CGI allow us to see the workings of a creative mind. His imagination requires no special effects, however, such as magic chalk capable of creating portals (not dissimilar from Pullman’s Subtle Knife) and gnarled trees leading to the fantasy world.
With similarities in story and themes to rock fantasy ‘Labyrinth’, this is a beautifully engaging piece of viewing. Admittedly challenging to watch, but once you take the decision to join del Toro on his journey of artistry, stay with him till the end. I assure you that it is worth it.