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Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

    Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events Review
    “I'm sorry to say that this is not the movie you'll be watching...”

    Imagine Roald Dahl and Tim Burton locked up in a dusty, dark old attic, shooting the breeze and concocting a mutual alter-ego for themselves. The phantom offspring of this warped union could very plausibly be the sardonic, subversive children's author known as Lemony Snicket. Utilising the beautiful perversity of Burton's worldview and the clever, manipulative imagination of Dahl, the real creator of these wonderful tales is a prolific LA writer called Daniel Handler, who has seen his series of books chronicling the, indeed, deeply unfortunate events surrounding the poor orphaned Baudelaire children become the demented cousin to the Harry Potter franchise. Much darker, slicker and sicker than J.K. Rowling, Handler takes children's fantasy literature into a dangerous new realm and his stories are, arguably, all the more entertaining for it. Finally allowed out of that dark attic and getting the big screen treatment they so cried out for, this first outing in the capable hands of Brad (City Of Angels) Silberling, is a tremendously assured adaptation that refuses to tone down the gleefully pessimistic approach that may have scared away many other filmmakers. Let's face it, the whole premise - children losing their parents to a mysterious house-fire and being sent to live with their despicable relative Count Olaf who only wants to kill them off in order to gain their inheritance - is hardly the kind of sugary-sweet, kiddie-pap yarn that Hollywood is fond of producing.

    “You are so deceased ...”

    Perhaps only in the medium of the movies could Tim Burton's off-kilter influence so easily embrace this gothic oddity - just look at the skewed sets, the insane architecture and feel that exquisitely redolent atmosphere. In fact, this is the most Burton-esque movie that Tim Burton never made. Of course, having his production crew from the likes of Sleepy Hollow drafted in to create the fabulously detailed and wickedly parallel universe that Snicket has fashioned helps a lot. But it is in the fairytale vein of the sinister yet charming; the victory of innocence from the clutches of depravity that Events truly catches hold of Burton's wing and takes full flight. But don't be misled; Brad Silberling has fermented a deep, dark slice of unique fantasy that has his hallmark all over it. Mixing outrageously surreal images with wholly unhinged characters gives the movie an eerie sense of mischief, as though a playful band of pixie-puppeteers are pulling the strings and Jim Carrey's skin-crawlingly reprehensible Olaf is that rare breed of monster that is truly evil and cruel, yet manages to stay just inside the boundary of pantomime villainy. With his malevolently pointed face, crazy eyebrows and sinister stare he is still guaranteed to give the little ones nightmares, though. Think Max Schreck's Nosferatu grafted onto the Judder Man from a famous TV commercial. That he really tries every dastardly trick in the book to gain the Baudelaire fortune is a genuine hark back to the original folklore tales and myths of wicked stepmothers and the like.

    “This is not home.”

    There is a surprising level of tension and excitement created with the various predicaments that the children find themselves in, tipping the scales very satisfyingly in the favour of nastiness. The first murder attempt which sees Olaf locking them in the car and leaving them on a level crossing with a train bearing down upon them is a classic. The brilliant forced-perspective camerawork ramps up the immediacy of the threat marvellously. Again, when Aunt Josephine's ridiculously rickety cliff-edge house comes under the onslaught of the vicious Hurricane Herman, there is a terrific sense of peril and violence when the struts give way and all manner of domestic appliances are hurled at them by the wind and don't get me started on the hideous Lachrymose leeches. However for sheer shock value, how about the striking image of baby Sunny playing within the coils of the huge dark viper? Deliriously dark stuff. Kids in jeopardy - you just gotta love it!

    “There's always something ...”

    And what of the kids, you ask? Are they the ubiquitously plucky and annoying younglings that generally plague the silver screen? Well, no, actually. Far from it, this time around. Fourteen-year-old Violet, played by Aussie Emily Browning, is captivating as the leader of the three orphans, deftly taking charge of many sticky situations with her uncanny knack for on-the-spot inventing. Middle Baudelaire and bookworm Klaus (Liam Aiken) adds a little vulnerability to the pack, yearning for his lost parents but coming up trumps when the chips are down and then there's the infant Sunny with her tendency to bite, wise beyond her years yet saddled with a mouth that transforms her sage-like words into pure babyspeak. All are perfectly cast and work well as a team, sketching in the sadness inherent in the story without ever allowing it to drown the fun. Whilst melancholia is an essential element to the proceedings, it is cleverly deflected with the episodic nature of the tale. No sooner have the kids survived one nefarious attempt to turn them into cash, than they are whisked off by Timothy Spall's bumbling, dim-witted banker Mr. Poe to another tenuously-related guardian. Although Meryl Streep's incredible turn as the once-intrepid-now-hopelessly-petrified Aunt Josephine is a spellbinding character spinner, I found the sequence in Uncle (Billy Connolly) Monty's reptile-rife house the most amusing. It's good to see the Big Yin acting alongside Spall again, too.

    “Children are strange and foreign to me. Er, I never really was one.”

    But, unsurprisingly, it is Carrey who steals the show. Silberling has managed to capture his manic improvisation and loon-ball antics and bottled them, only popping the lid enough to reveal a distilled character that comes in several flavours - none of which outstay their welcome. In the guise of Stefano - “I'm an Italian man” - Count Olaf is hysterical, a man whose skill for milking snakes earned him the nickname of Old MacDonald down on the snake farm. As the salty old seadog Captain Sham (the clue's in the name, folks) he excellently woos the grammar-obsessed Aunt Josephine, all the while knowing that the kids are fully onto his ruse. But it is really the crafty, but obvious, Count that is his work of genius, lurking just beneath the veneer of each of his disguises. It's a bravura performance fleshed out by one the greatest living ad-libbers, but the real clincher is that the role actually feels restrained. Carrey could certainly have blown everybody else off the screen with a character that he seems born to play, yet wisely he chooses not to dominate. The presence of Count Olaf fills virtually every frame whilst, in reality, it is the children that take up most of the screentime, yet even their plight often feels only lightly airbrushed. A clever touch, this. It lends a sort of floating ease to the film so that the viewer never feels short-changed by a lack of back story or exposition. Just enough to get by.

    “Well, you can certainly turn a phrase.

    “I can flip it up and rub it down, too.”

    Silberling's direction is pitched perfectly; he handles both the kinetic action scenes and the more intimate, tender moments with style and assuredness. He adeptly avoids the cute or quaint angles that could have tripped him up, keeping the movie zipping along, allowing it to create its own momentum. There is a great sense of unease and menace as each situation the children find themselves in rapidly takes a turn for the worse, and the use of crazy cinematography and fabulous interior-for-exterior sets adds immeasurably to the warped spirit of the story. Robert Gordon's screenplay has effectively taken the first three Snicket books and rolled them into one. The filmmaking process has, thus, shoehorned in an ending that, to me anyway, feels slightly ill-at-ease with the rest of the movie. Silberling does detail why this was the case in his commentary but I still feel vaguely unsatisfied with the climax here. The only other complaint I have about what is a really an otherwise tremendous film is the inclusion of Jude Law as the silhouetted narrator, Lemony Snicket, himself. Now, I've never rated Law as an actor and I truly cannot see what makes him so popular. Here, he is merely a voice in the dark, but that somehow seems like a worse trick to play as he has one of the most character-less and ineffective monotones I've ever heard. However, these slight niggles do not add up to much and I recommend this particular set of Unfortunate Events wholeheartedly and with plenty of books already written and their popularity growing it is only a matter of time before Count Olaf tries to ensnare the Baudelaire's once more. I, for one, can't wait.