Tim Burton | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13
Director Tim Burton’s most recent live-action movie is an adaptation of a 1960s soap opera… albeit one featuring vampires, witches, ghosts and sundry other supernatural goings-on. You wouldn’t get that on EastEnders (more’s the pity).
In the mid 18th Century, the Collins family leaves Liverpool for the New World, setting up a successful fishing empire and their own town, Collinsport. The son Barnabas (Johnny Depp) has a fling with the maid, Angelique (Eva Green), before laying his affections on Josette (Bella Heathcote). Little does he know, Angelique is a witch, who kills Josette, turns Barnabas into a vampire, and goads the townsfolk into burying him alive. As you do.
Fastforward 200 years to 1972, where young Victoria Winters (also Heathcote) arrives in Collinsport to become governess for the still-surviving Collins family’s youngest. The fishing business is failing, the mansion crumbling, and the family (Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gully McGrath, plus live-in psychologist Helena Bonham Carter and handyman Jackie Earle Haley) are a collection of odd-sorts. Then Barnabas’ coffin is dug up, resurrecting him, and… Oh, look, I’m basically telling you the whole movie now. It’s quite hard to provide a summary of the introduction to the plot, because there’s actually rather a lot going on.
Early on, it works. The first 20 to 30 minutes offer a serviceable prologue and an engaging introduction to most of the characters. It’s funny, it’s occasionally spooky, there’s a good deal of promise for a marginally-more-serious Addams Family-cum-Edward Scissorhands fantasy (I did say “marginally”). All in all, it’s a skilful and cohesive opening, if nonetheless a little Burton-by-numbers. Sadly, the film doesn’t seem to know where to go with it after that.
The story is hard to summarise because it feels like someone tried to cut a year’s worth of a soap into a movie. There are more characters than the film knows what to do with, meaning we get major developments that come literally out of nowhere, plots that are explained rather than seen, others that are introduced only to be wrapped up, and the nagging sense that a lot of material has been deleted.
Standing out from that crowd are Eva Green, who chews the scenery with aplomb, and Bella Heathcote, who grabs her chance to shine among an otherwise starry but phoning-it-in cast. Depp trots out the latest variation on his white-facepainted-weirdo Burton staple; Pfeiffer seems to wish she was back in Stardust or Hairspray; Moretz almost undermines her rising-star status (and is a little too jailbait-y to boot); Jonny Lee Miller battles his American accent almost as much as his character’s lack of purpose; and Helena Bonham Carter is in it as well, obviously.
It’s a tonal grab bag: at times it seems to be a knowing spoof of daytime soaps, at others pushing for drama almost with a straight face; it’s sometimes deliberately and successfully comedic, at others straining too hard for a desperate laugh; it has a strain of bizarre sexuality that may be aiming at comic but is frequently just uncomfortable. This scrappiness leads to the most cardinal sin of any entertainment: it ends up a bit boring; and, in its out-of-the-blue big-battle climax, crushingly derivative.
Burton has spent almost a decade picking projects that are glaringly obvious choices for him. Perhaps it’s a reaction to Planet of the Apes’ failure; perhaps he’s just as predictable as the “Burton-esque” labelling these projects would likely have received under a different director. Whatever, it seems to have led to an artistically-criminal level of laziness — and I say laziness rather than ineptitude because, for all the project’s predictability, some almost-inspired moments do shine through. Just not often enough.