Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
- Reviewed by: Avril Carruthers
Rate this movie:You must sign-in first.
Current Rating 8.67/10 | 203 Votes
Cast: Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Jude Law, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Kara Hoffman, Shelby Hoffman, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Luis Guzman, Cedric the Entertainer, Dustin Hoffman.
Based on the first three of 11 popular children’s novels by Daniel Handler that were the first to topple Harry Potter from the best-seller lists, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is an adventure story in the best tradition of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. The film features heinously cruel and ugly villains (well, one, actually, but he takes many disguises), devastating tragedies and alarming disasters that our child hero and heroines must overcome. As evilly greedy as the villain is, as potentially fatal the situations from which they must escape, the children in this story are clever, resourceful and brave. Who would not love such a tale?
The film opens with a jelly-bean-coloured Bambi-esque animation backed with the kind of syrupy tune children are supposed to be pacified by, about ‘The Littlest Elf’. The voice of Jude Law as Lemony Snicket, narrator, interrupts, warning us that if we wanted a sweet and charmingly happy movie about a happy elf, this will not be it. Introducing himself as the chronicler of the doings of the Baudelaire children, he then presents Violet (Emily Browning) as one of the finest 14-year-old inventors in the world – which we should be able to tell just by the way she ties her hair up in a ribbon.
Contrasting with the Elfish animation, the colours are now dark, the sky sinister and ominous, while Violet is dressed in a dark Victorian-style dress and looks pale and serious. In the sweet, stylised, comic tone the movie excels in, the understated voice of the narrator outlines the individual strengths of the Baudelaire children while the camera gives us bizarrely exaggerated examples. So Violet’s inventions include a bed that makes itself, her brother Klaus (Liam Aiken), a prodigious reader with a photographic memory, is seen almost buried behind stacks of books in their parents' towering library, while their infant sister Sunny’s (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) talent for biting with her four sharp teeth is demonstrated to hilarious effect.
No sooner are they introduced than tragedy strikes. Well-meaning but empathy-challenged banker Mr Poe (the versatile Timothy Spall) tells them of a fire in which their parents have perished in their home, a cathedral-like mansion of impressive wealth. Orphaned, the three are now to be under the care of a remote relative and actor Count Olaf (played with gleeful rapaciousness by Jim Carrey).
Count Olaf (on meeting them for the first time): Why so glum?
Klaus: Our parents just died!
Count Olaf: (Stock response) How very, very awful. (Thinks he can do better.) Can you do that again?
Klaus: (appalled) What, say our parents just died?!
Count Olaf: (Reacts much more tragically.)
While the children cope bravely with the task of preparing a meal in his loathsome kitchen we are shown how arrogantly he treats his motley acting troupe. We are also put wise to his nefarious intention to divest them of their fortune and have it for himself. Using uncommon ingenuity and determination, the children find ways to defeat his dastardly schemes, including being rammed by a train, eaten by giant leeches, and a deviously devised marriage. Further, a deadly mystery unfolds which the children must solve to explain their parents' death.
Their next guardians, superb characters played by Billy Connolly as eccentric herpetologist Uncle Monty and Meryl Streep as the severely multi-phobic Aunt Josephine display warmth and comic timing sufficient to make us care for them before their alarming fates respectively overtake them. And things will not get better before they become worse.
Violet: Doesn't it strike you as odd that none of our relatives are related to us?
The performances of Emily Browning, Liam Aiken and the Hoffman twins as the Baudelaire children are stunning. Matching Carrey’s over-the-top antics with their stillness and depth completes the comedy and adventure in a most satisfying way. Plot twists abound and the pace is fast, while the dialogue is multi-layered enough for adults and children of different ages to appreciate the humour on several levels.
The colour of the movie contrasts bleak environments, forbiddingly clouded skies and dingy interiors with lamp-lit warmth and safety in the sanctuary the children create together to fortify themselves against their daunting orphaned situation. The characters’ costumes are of indeterminate vintage but with an old-fashioned feel of a time long before children were dressed frivolously in primary colours. The weird, anachronistic combination of locomotive, early automobiles, spy-glasses and vaguely Victorian styles gives a perfect backdrop for a movie where reality stretches in a most agreeably alarming way. Director Brad Silberling, who brought us Casper, Moonlight Mile and City of Angels, brings the essentials of the Lemony Snicket books to life in a witty visual comedy with wide appeal.
Happily the children are shown as much, much smarter than the adults and because the children are playing it straight while the adult characters are exaggerated into pure melodrama in Dickensian fashion, it works well. Especially delightful are the subtitled comments of little Sunny, whom only Violet and Klaus can understand: they are pure gems, spoofing patronising adult attitudes misled by baby talk into underestimating babies' intelligence.
For my companions at the screening of this movie, six-year-old Zack and seven-year-old Harrison, there was no doubt that the wit of Sunny’s character was the most appreciated, the bravery of all the Baudelaire children most admirable and Jim Carrey’s Count Olaf the funniest villain ever. Asked how the film compared with Harry Potter, Zack did not hesitate. His verdict: Lemony Snicket was the bestest, bestest, bestest film in the whole wide world!
© Avril Carruthers, 13th December 2004
What do you think of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
Share your opinions on our forum