DIR: Tim Burton • WRI: Jane Goldman • PRO: Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping • DOP: Bruno Delbonnel • ED: Chris Lebenzon • DES: Gavin Bocquet • MUS: Michael Higham , Matthew Margeson • CAST: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson
After his recent forays into animation, the CGI fest that was Alice in Wonderland and the courtroom drama of Big Eyes, there is a joy in seeing a Tim Burton movie set in a world which looks visually authentic but still possesses the director’s unique, vibrant style. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children stars Asa Butterfield (Hugo) as Jake, a young man who, following his grandfather’s death (Terence Stamp), seeks to find the titular place his deceased loved one spoke so fondly about. Convincing his parents (Kim Dickens – oddly wasted, Chris O’Dowd) and his shrink (Allison Janney) a trip to Wales, where Stamp’s character lived as a boy, would be a good way of saying goodbye to his grandfather, he makes the journey. There he finds the school, led by Eva Green’s Miss Peregrine, just as the peculiar children face a deadly threat (Samuel L. Jackson).
The movie is visually dazzling. Tim Burton’s goth aesthetic is tailor-made for adapting Ransom Riggs’ novel, on which the film is based. One can tell how much fun the director is having portraying the eccentricities of each peculiar child (a boy with bees in his stomach, a teen that can bring ordinary items to life) and in staging some of the more audacious action set-pieces of the movie’s second-half (fake human skeletons fighting disgusting alien-like creatures with no eyes and long tongues).
It also, at times, has a great retro-punk vibe. The peculiar kids live forever, constantly rewinding the same day in 1940. Each night, as the loop begins to close, the children put on creepy gas-masks and watch as a Nazi missile blows up their Victorian orphanage, before the day returns to its beginning in a particularly inventive recurring sequence. Another key scene, sees Emma (Ella Purcell), a woman who can manipulate air, resurrecting a Titanic-like ship from the bottom of the sea as a means of travel. This combination of history and fantasy, along with its protagonists harbouring unusual powers, leaves the film feeling like a Tim Burton X-Men (Miss Peregrine was written by X-Men: First Class’ Jane Goldman), although more outré and therefore, more interesting.
The script, although slightly fuelled by plot-exposition, has that off-beat humour and fresh quality that Goldman brought to Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service. Even when she hits upon tired, formulaic beats (a romance between Jake and Ella), the writer brings enough ingenuity to make them interesting. For instance, one of the children’s gifts is being able to project his dreams and premonitions so that others can see them. Through this we see Jake and Ella about to kiss on a sunken ship (a neat Titanic homage). However, the boy can’t differentiate between his imaginings and his apparitions so we’re unaware how reliable the information is. Goldman then keeps faking out the audience with potential kisses between the two potential romantic partners, leaving one actually curious whether the vision was a lie.
The performances, for the most part, are excellent. Although Jake is a very bland character (he never feels like an outsider despite all his talk of being one), he is, for the most part, a means of introducing the audience to Peregrine’s unusual world. For that, Butterfield is serviceable. However, the show is stolen by Eva Green (between this and Dark Shadows, she is perhaps Burton’s new muse) as the titular teacher. As evident by her consistently stellar work on Penny Dreadful, there is no actress working today who walks the thin line between class and camp the way she does. The actress’ character is part-bird and as Variety writer Peter Debruge wrote so eloquently: “Green cleverly suggests her avian alter ego, standing rigidly upright in her peacock-blue satin gown – gorgeous work by designer Coleen Atwood, glowering down through exaggerated eyeliner, and brandishing her long, slender fingers as if they were talons”.
She is also backed up with a barrage of fine supporting performances. Terence Stamp manages to bring so much emotional heft to the movie with so little screen-time. Meanwhile Samuel L. Jackson and Rupert Everett look like they’re having a blast in their campy supporting turns.
Overall, it’s just terrific to see Burton returning to the same themes (alienation, the darkness of Americana) and stylistic beats (his blend of comedy and horror, his campy tone) of his best work, even if it is now less original than it once was. In this way, Miss Peregrine is akin to catching up with an old friend and finding you still enjoy their company.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is released 30th September 2016