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The Wolfman

Joe Johnston

Gwen Conliffe, the heroine of the new Wolfman, is supposed to be a lady, but she also, unaccountably, keeps a shop. She sells bric-a-brac, such as a bust of Shakespeare (smiling!) that, by the time of the film's 1891 setting, would not be old enough to be considered "antique." It is hard to know what the shop is doing in the movie. During its one scene, no customers come in to make small talk with the distressed leading lady — what a Greer Garson moment that would have been! Even though a couple of dramatically important things happen in the shop, there is no need for the setting. But it's cool, in a why-not sort of way, and maybe Gwen Conliffe is simply anticipating the career of Deborah Devonshire, whose former home provides a luridly-lit stand-in for the home of the accursed Talbots. 

What was I doing at The Wolfman? Watching Emily Blunt play Gwen Conliffe, of course. What to make of the movie is not so simple. 

Joe Johnston's remake of George Waggner's 1941 horror film, with a script by Curt Siodmak (born Dresden, 1902), would be an awful picture if it were not so beautiful. Perhaps "beautiful" isn't the right word for a persistently underlighted, ashen mise en sc่ne, but the beauty of Wolfman isn't a matter of mere sets and costumes. There's Ms Blunt, after all, radiating an intense, buttoned-up compassion. Her character is something of an angel in this production, and she seems to move with grave deliberation even when she's running for her life (or ought to be). There's Geraldine Chaplin, her stunning physiognomy blazing through outrageous gypsy drag. Even the men wear the beauty of assured performances. The superb acting that Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik and Antony Sher lavish upon The Wolfman triumphs over the trite mediocrity of its screenplay.

I was puzzled by the quality gap between the meager, flat-lined screenplay and the gorgeous, saturated production values. Had The Wolfman been more violent, the incongruity would have been understandable, but although the picture is indeed very violent when it is violent at all, its mood prefers menace to action. This is not a movie that takes no interest in ordinary life. It is largely preoccupied by the dread that is well known to every imaginative child, and its story is moved along by the struggle of everyday people to put an end to the imagined source of that dread. Unfortunately, the movie is every bit as predictable as everyday life. Nothing remarkable happens, and, what's worse, nobody ever says anything memorable. It could be worse: the dialogue could be ridiculous, which it isn't. But it never rises above the level of being sorry that things have worked out this way.

I came away thinking that The Wolfman may have been made for a generation of viewers raised on video games and other digital entertainments — pastimes in which conversational give-and-take does not feature. The plot points and the spoken lines aren't intended to be interesting in themselves, by this theory, because they are markers, indications that the game has proceeded to such and such a point. Benicio del Toro is the protagonist — the guy playing the game — and, if his character does not win, exactly, he is at least redeemed. Altogether the movie would be far better if it were shot in some exotic foreign language — Martian, perhaps.

That's fun to say, but I'm serious. I don't think that we can really go back to silent movies, but The Wolfman would certainly be improved if the sound track were turned off. Oh, not Danny Elfman's score; his music is the only thing that does happen. The loss of the English actors' lovely voices would be partly compensated by that of Mr del Toro's; looking every inch the brooding fortysomething, he sounds as though his voice is still cracking. Mostly, though, we wouldn't have to listen to the spoken tripe that amounts to an insult to the visual manifestation of a child's imagination, where clarity is a feeling rather than a condition. If we weren't annoyed by the threadbare things that the characters say to each other, we might be freer to enjoy a movie that looks as though it were made by a couple of ace film students who, never having seen a horror film before, inevitably re-invented a few wheels. And we'd certainly have a better time in Gwen Conliffe's shop. 

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