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Posts Tagged ‘Albert Finney’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 5th 2004: 

If you were just starting out as a film director, I suppose one of the things you might do in order to quickly establish yourself would be to develop a signature style – a collection of trademark shots, images and themes running as a sort of common thread through all your work. Your resume would have a sort of consistency, your fan base would probably grow faster, and people who worry about that sort of thing would be reassured that they always knew where they stood when it came to your films.

Of course, as time went by and you wanted to stretch your wings and maybe do something just a little bit different, this very consistency might well start to work against you. People would come to your films looking out for your trademark stuff and end up completely overlooking the rest of it, no matter how impressively executed. ‘Stop ruminating unimpressively and get to the goddam review!‘ I hear you cry. Well, okay, punters, this week we’re looking at Tim Burton’s Big Fish, the film which led me aboard that particular train of thought.

This is a story about that old favourite of a theme, the troubled father-son relationship. No, wait, come back – because although that particular chestnut has been flogged to death (nice metaphor – what sparkling form I’m on just now), this is a film with much to commend it.

Billy Crudup plays Will Bloom, an American in Paris (no, this isn’t a musical) who finds himself summoned home to Alabama when his father is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Edward Bloom (played with sparklingly roguish charm by Albert Finney) has been a salesman by trade but a teller of tall tales by vocation for all of his life. Basically he tells a pleasing, fantastical, and utterly fraudulent version of his life to everyone he meets (the young Edward is played – with, it must be said, a rather erratic accent – by Ewan McGregor). He tells tales of befriending giants, playing fetch-the-stick with a werewolf, and sailing from Vietnam to America with some conjoined twins. Edward’s refusal to reveal any of his true self to his son has been the cause of some friction between them, and it’s up to Will to find some resolution before it’s too late.

Yeah, well, it doesn’t sound like much, I’ll admit, but the meat of the film consists of the extraordinary tales Edward tells of his youth. Going into too much detail about these would only spoil them, but suffice it to say that they are as inventive and scary and drily funny as one could hope for. There seemed to me to be a distinct whiff of the works of Roald Dahl throughout the film – there’s a big friendly giant and a witch, but also hints of the darkness and pain that characterised much of Dahl’s writing. McGregor is an ebullient lead, and he’s well supported by the likes of Danny de Vito and an increasingly consumptive-looking Steve Buscemi. Helena Bonham-Carter pops up too, oddly less-recognisable under her witch’s make-up than she was as a chimpanzee in Burton’s Planet Of The Apes (now there’s a movie with a lot to answer for!).

In the past I’ve always been a bit of an agnostic regarding Tim Burton. Some of his films I’ll happily admit are terrific – the two Batmans, Ed Wood – and they all look extraordinary, but the worlds he puts up on the screen are often so skewed and divorced from reality that I find it hard to connect with them emotionally. But this isn’t the case with Big Fish – the ‘real world’ sequences with Finney and Crudup (also Jessica Lange and Marion Cotillard as their wives) buttress the fantasy, provide a bridge into it, and lend the film a certain emotional gravitas. Burton directs these scenes with an utter naturalism one wouldn’t believe him capable of – it’s the equivalent of Damien Hurst painting a lovely landscape, and it’s surely to Burton’s credit. The actors help: Finney is an appropriately larger than life figure and Crudup’s performance is very nicely judged so as to be memorable without crowding the film.

There’s a slight incoherency to some parts of the film – ideally the progression of Edward’s fantastical life story should match Will’s increasing insight into him as a person, and it doesn’t – and it would have been more satisfying if the script had come up with a psychological explanation for Edward’s story-telling with a bit more depth to it than ‘stories are more interesting than real life’. The film also can’t resist a slightly predictable climax which blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, unnecessarily I thought. But Big Fish remains a film which manages to be very funny without ever being crass, imaginative without ever losing its grip on reality, and moving without being sentimental. Tim Burton’s best film in nearly a decade – recommended.

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