Iain Softley | 102 mins | TV | PG / PG
Shot in late 2006, originally scheduled for release in December 2007, ultimately pushed back twice and finally hit cinemas December 2008… what’s wrong with Inkheart?
Well, the biggest flaw is that it doesn’t bother to set out the rules, a major oversight in a fantasy movie such as this. The central conceit is that Brendan Fraser’s character is a Silvertongue: when he reads a novel aloud, what he’s reading about enters our world — and, in exchange, some one or thing is sucked into the book. But how is it decided what comes out and what goes in? What can and can’t be read? Why not just write your own story to get you out of trouble? We can figure some things out as the story trundles along, but it’s often too little too late, particularly when the film continues to throw in things that doesn’t seem to make any sense with what we’ve already witnessed.
The lack of questions or explanations also impairs the characters, suggesting they don’t have the intelligence to query events. At times it’s fine that they’re a bit lost, that they don’t know all there is to know about these abilities — many of them are just finding out about them too — but at others, they seem aware of some rule or other and just haven’t bothered to explain it to us, or accept something that clearly the author knows about but neither we nor they do. Perhaps there’s a pile of deleted scenes that fill in some of these gaps, not to mention others in the plot, but it seems doubtful — if they do exist, why were they removed?
A side effect of not establishing the central concept’s rules is that the film doesn’t play with it enough. What, if anything, happens if you just change the words while reading? How is it determined what comes out of the book, what goes in, and can these be influenced? What happens if two Silvertongues read the same text at once? There are other things it would be interesting to see, but those require a more detailed description of some of the few rules that can be discerned so I won’t trouble you with them now.
The last act is messy. Despite the lack of concept-exploration, the plot seems to run out of steam and ideas, reducing itself to a variety of captures, escapes and chases around the castle, until everyone’s finally where they’re wanted for The Big Showdown. This too is a mess, flooding the screen with almost every character, creature and concept introduced so far. It’s such a muddle of characters and actions that it’s almost endearingly barmy.
Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent lend some quality to proceedings — they get to have fun in supporting roles even if they’re only given the odd moment to shine — while Andy Serkis is always good value as a hissable villain. Paul Bettany is amiable as the film’s most interesting character, conflicted fire-breather Dustfinger. While everyone else is straightforward, predictable and/or pantomime, Dustfinger is torn back and forth between helping the heroes, his inherent selfishness, his fear of returning home, and his desire to see his family again. Brendan Fraser, the ostensible lead, is as adequate as ever but outshone by almost everyone else, not least Eliza Hope Bennett. She’s a minor find as Meggie (who I rather suspect is the main character in the book, but here is trumped by ‘star’ power), displaying more believability than most young teenage leads manage in films like this.
For all these moans, Inkheart is a likeable film, and for anyone prepared to just go along with it may find it more entertaining. There are plenty of good or promising facets, not least the concept of Silvertongues, but the lack of clear rules create flaws it’s hard to ignore, ultimately leaving the viewer to long for a better screenplay. A somewhat wasted opportunity.