Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

An isolated army base during the Spanish civil war. Forested hills filled with the artefacts of a forgotten civilisation. A lonely girl, desperate to protect her pregnant mother, seeking consolation in her books of fairy tales. Spies in the camp, rebels in the hills, brutality everywhere, and perhaps something else, something ancient, unglimpsed by adult eyes.

Such is the setting for Guillermo del Toro's harrowing and complex Pan's Labyrinth, not the out and out fantasy which viewers might have expected from the trailers but something more borderline, something which explores not only the possibility of other worlds lying beneath our own but also the importance of the imagination. From young Ofelia's perspective, she is contacted by a faun (not the Pan of the title, a rather misleading translation) who tells there that she was a princess in a land beneath the earth and that in order to win back her inheritance she must complete a series of tasks. Elegantly evoked with striking visuals, this is the stuff of classic fairy tales: vivid, messy, delicately off-kilter, and fraught with danger. However, whether they are real or imagined, they provide Ofelia with a vital means of defending her childhood and her innocence from the ugliness with which she is surrounded.

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Despite its strong fantasy element, Pan's Labyrinth is definitely not a film for young children; even older ones may be quite upset by it. Del Toro does not flinch from showing us war and rebellion as they really are, and there are scenes of shocking violence. Unlike previous attempts at this kind of blending, like Labyrinth and The Company of Wolves, Pan's Labyrinth never allows the fantastic viewpoint to dominate, offering an equally strong parallel story. This is supported by a host of powerful performances, most notably from Maribel Verdu as Mercedes, a servant who befriends Ofelia. The charisma of the cast is vital in holding together a tale which interweaves so many different elements, as the film begins with lots of different things happening in different places, apparently unrelated. It takes a while to get going and start making sense, but once it does so it develops the powerful sense of inevitability which is central to developing tension in any good fairy tale.

Where Pan's Labyrinth is sometimes weak is in the development of its fantasy characters. The animatronic faun is just a little too awkward and dry to convince; the fairies get too little room to develop; the monster which pursues Ofelia is appropriately hideous but too clumsy to be as sinister as it should be. As Ofelia, Ivana Baquero never quite seems comfortable acting opposite these creations, but her performance is otherwise excellent and del Toro demonstrates a remarkable ability to look at the world he has created from a child's perspective. Ofelia's certainty contrasts tellingly with the hesitation of adult characters to take action when they should, giving her a sense of purpose which remains when everything around her starts to crumble. It is here that the film really excels. It's an odd mixture, and one which many prospective viewers may feel uncertain about, but it's very much worth watching.

Reviewed on: 21 Nov 2006
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In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, a lonely girl encounters a mysterious faun.
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Read more Pan's Labyrinth reviews:

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Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writer: Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Ariadna Gil, Doug Jones, Álex Angulo, Manolo Solo, César Vea, Roger Casamajor, Ivan Massagué, Gonzalo Uriarte

Year: 2006

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Mexico, Spain, US

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