Friday 15 October 2010

Film: Mirrormask

I knew something about Mirrormask a long time before the film was available to watch. I saw its illustrated screenplay when I was at university, in the fantasy/graphic novels/gifty section of Borders bookshop. (Oh, Borders, I still miss you!) Written by Neil Gaiman, who I then knew solely from his collaboration with Terry Pratchett on their novel Good Omens, Mirrormask was promoted, and indeed made, to appeal to fans of cult classic Labyrinth. Unfortunately I could not find the film itself, which was not released for another year or so afterwards, and which I seemed to miss the opportunities of watching until now.

The plot is a fairly standard fairy-tale, of a teenage girl at odds with her parents. Helena's family own a circus, but Helena is tired of the lifestyle .When, shortly after a bitter argument, her mother collapses and needs a kill-or-cure operation, Helena finds herself full of regret for the things she had said, and the things she hadn't said. On the night of the operation, she wakes to find herself drawn into a surreal world dreamed up by the Queen of Light, who is now ill. Her illness affects the whole country and allows her evil counterpart, the Queen of Shadows, to take over and poison the land. Helena and her new friend Valentine (He's a very important man, you know. He's got a tower) are recruited on a quest to find a "charm" and bring the Queen back to life.

From the very beginning, you can see the comic-book roots of Mirrormask's creators, Gaiman and artist Dave McKean. Helena is an artistic girl herself, and her drawings are pinned all over her circus trailer, all in black and white, with sharp, jagged lines and fantastical images. The circus world is bright, loud, but slightly jarring with wobbly camera angles and clanging, relentless circus music, whereas "real life" consists of drab, rundown flats on the Brighton seafront, overlooking the burnt-out pier. The other world is weird in the extreme, coloured with a goldish light and an appearance that I can't just call special effects but art. As well as the strange and wonderful characters created by the Jim Henson company, including a cameo from the wonderful Stephen Fry Stephen Fry's mouth, the whole set has an impossible, dreamlike appearence. The picture is blurred and there is mist that looks like pencil shading. There seems to be drawing or writing in the sky that you just can't make out, as if the whole scene is being viewed through a golden window with engravings on the glass. And that is before we get to the wobbly houses and the fish flying through the air.

The story takes an interesting turn when Helena discovers the existence of the dark queen's daughter, who looks like her, and who has taken her place in the real world. When the Queen finds Helena, she believes her to be her daughter and Helena receives a nightmaresque makeover to the soundtrack of a jangling, discordant version of "close to you." Gaiman seems to enjoy writing about possessive mother counterparts and the importance of letting a child grow up and be their own person - the Shadow Queen has a similar persona to the Other Mother of Coraline.

It is difficult to know who the audience is for Mirrormask. Although created for the Labyrinth market, I would not recommend it to children, because although mostly harmless, the film's whole appearance is the sort of surreal that would easily give a small person nightmares. On the other hand, the quest plot isn't really satisfactory for an adult, a rather elementary McGuffin-hunt, and Helena's logic in working out the clues doesn't really make a lot of sense. All the same, the film is worth watching for the spectacle, and no doubt analytical, critical types would be able to debate about it to their hearts' content.

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