When I went to see Hellboy, there were certain flights of fancy that made me wonder what director Guillermo del Toro would do if he didn’t have to adhere to a pre-existing comic book story, attempting to appeal to Hollywood’s conception of cool. With Pan’s Labyrinth, which he wrote as well as directed, I had my answer, and happily, I got to see what I feel was the best film I’ve seen on the big screen this year.
The story starts out in time-honoured fashion. Ofelia, a girl who likes fairy tales despite being a little old for them goes with her mother to a new home in the country, where she comes across an ancient labyrinth. A fairy leads her to Pan, a faun who tells her that she is a princess of a magical kingdom, and all she needs to do is complete three tasks to prove her worth. That could be the start of any of a million clichéd stories in the Narnia vein. But Ofelia’s wicked stepfather, a captain chasing down Communist rebels in a post-civil war Spain, executes some poachers with such brutal realism that you realise why the film has a 15 certificate…and slowly, you realise that this isn’t a fairy story about a girl having adventures, but a stark war film, and what happens to Ofelia is but a counterpoint, a commentary on a brutal reality. The fantasy sequences turn out not to be all fairies and prettiness, but difficult and gruelling, and the Alice in Wonderland dress Ofelia is given by her mother has to be left behind while she goes crawling under trees, getting covered in mud. Indeed, towards the end some interesting games are played with what is real and what Ofelia has simply fantasised.
The film is superbly acted, the young lead always believable and never annoying, her pregnant mother and the female servant who seems to understand her best are in their turns powerful, vulnerable and likeable, and the master of acting under prosthetics, Doug Jones, has not one but two unforgettable characters here, surprisingly speaking what sounded like excellent Spanish as Pan and also appearing as the Pale Man, who was simply awesome – way, way more scary than anything in Silent Hill, or just about any other horror movie I can think of. And then there was Ofelia’s step-father, Vidal, who could so easily have been totally two-dimensional, with his predilection for torture, his mistreatment of Ofelia and his desire to live on through his child, but with nothing more than a somewhat unoriginal memento to humanise him, somehow Sergi Lopez makes him a believable character (for a fascist captain) and even a sympathetic one.
It’s a real triumph of filmmaking. The costumes, the contrast in cinematography between the quests and the realism of living on a farm in the forties, where water must be drawn from wells and cows must be milked, the set design and the music are all as good as anything in top Hollywood productions, with only CG lagging slightly. It’s also the first time I’ve felt really impressed by a film’s sound production; the way that the wooden creaks of Pan’s body echo the squeak of leather that accompanies Vidal’s movement when he is in uniform is superb.
And while the plot is more functional than original, the way expectations are subverted really works delightfully in the context. The very best thing I took from the film was a subtle critique on your typical quest-type story: Ofelia begins to obey Pan and his magic book blindly, but once she is reminded that fauns are not to be trusted, she starts to question, to doubt, to make her own choices. It is her innocent sense of right and wrong that ultimately informs her decisions, but I think it’s a shame that a lot of people will most likely see the movie and not come out of it realising after the final scenes, as well as those with the doctor, that the message of the fantasy sequences, truly connecting the two storylines, is that if you simply obey without questioning, you are taking steps down the road to fascist totalitarianism.
And how many fantasy tales have messages like that?