Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Pan's Labyrinth - a film review

Pan's Labyrinth is a fairytale set in post Civil War Spain. We follow the story of Ophelia, a young girl who, with her pregnant mother, is moved into the dark house of Captain Vidal. The film is told elegantly in a dual storyline. The first is set in real life - Carmen, Ophelia's mother, being bullied by Vidal and falling ill through pregnancy; Mercedes, servant to Vidal, befriending Ophelia and trying to do the right thing for the resistance fighters that Vidal is trying to crush; and Ophelia herself, wanting to meet her baby brother, but terrified by her new house and reluctant to call Vidal 'father'. The other storyline in the film follows Ophelia through a garden labyrinth into a dreamlike fairytale world, where she meets Pan, who believes that she is the soul of a long lost princess. Ophelia is invited to perform three tasks to prove she is royalty - each one more surreal and terrifying than the last. Both storylines collide at the end in a melancholic and ambiguous climax that leaves the watcher thoughtful, rather than thrilled.

I didn't watch Pan's Labyrinth at the cinema - in fact, it has curiously passed me by right up until last Saturday. I don't know where my reluctance stemmed from - maybe the foreign language aspect, maybe the massive hype accompanying its release, maybe the gore I heard about. Anyway, when we chose to watch a film on Saturday, the person recommending Pan's Labyrinth urged me to try at least the first half hour - if I was still reluctant, we could turn it off and I wouldn't really have lost any time.

Needless to say, the film was not turned off. In fact, by the time ten minutes had passed, I was enthralled by Ophelia's story. Pan's Labyrinth by turn appalled me, thrilled me, sickened me, delighted me - to me, it presents everything that a fairytale requires: a hero, a villain, magic, and a message.

One of my friends argued that the film was simply two separate stories mashed together by Guillermo del Toro, but I loved the way Ophelia travelled from dream to reality and back again. I admired the reflections between fairytale and life. I thrilled to the fact that Ophelia was fighting against two sinister individuals in the two facets of her life. I especially appreciated the fact that I am still wondering, days later, about whether Ophelia really did travel into a fairytale or whether she created the dreamlike world as a way of escaping the life she hated with Vidal.

I'm not ashamed to say that Pan's Labyrinth scared me silly at times, especially the monsters, both real and imagined - y favourite part of the film was also the part that scared me the most, this being during Ophelia's second task when she has to retrieve a knife without disturbing a slumbering nightmare. Gosh, that freaked me out!

The performances were universally extremely strong, and the fact they I had to follow their dialogue with subtitles took nothing away from their performances. I find that this is definitely the mark of how good a foreign language film is for me: if the subtitle aspect is non-obtrusive and I am not disturbed from the course of a film by reading along, then it is excellent!

Lastly, I just want to mention how stunningly beautiful this film is - especially all of the fairytale elements. How I regret not bothering to see this at the cinema! I definitely think this is the sort of film that HD and Blueray were invented for.

If you, like me, haven't watched Pan's Labyrinth - for whatever reason - I would urge you to change your mind and give it at least a try. It is horrific, scary, beautiful and melancholic. The story of Ophelia will stay with you long after the closing credits. Highly recommended.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. "Pan's Labyrinth" is an excellent movie and a wonderful story. It is one of the best movie I've seen and lately I didn't see a movie to match this one. But after all I believe that Hollywood is following a stereotypical road for a long time and that it should learn from movies such as "Pan's Labyrinth". I'll recommend you another excellent movie, "The Orphanage". I loved it too and it put me well on thoughts.

  3. I have wanted to see this for SO long. I have said it so often in fact that my friend bought me it for my birthday in February. Still haven't seen it. Trouble is that I can't watch it all the time my 13yr old is staying up and now the holidays are here, watching the sort of DVD's I like is going to be non-existenet. She's very easily scared - Cybermen scare her so what this film would do... well, I would be on escort out to the loo duty for months I reckon but your review is making me go all teenager tantrummy that I want to see it even more ;)

  4. Mihai, I shall consider The Orphanage :-)

    Carmen - your 13 year old definitely shouldn't watch this; there were bits that made me squeamish and virtually hide my eyes! But as soon as you can, get watching, it really is an amazing film!

  5. This is one of my favourite movies, and along with Night Watch has converted me to foriegn language films.

    I also spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the ending after I saw it; for me, the fact that they left it very much down to the viewer to decide if she had actually experienced any of it was perfect. It fit with the whole way the movie flitted from beautiful, dark fairytale to grim and brutal reality.

    I second the recommendation from Mihai, too. Watch "The Orphanage" if you want to enjoy another beautiful, frightening and incredibly well-directed movie.

  6. Pan's Labrynth is one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen. Also one of the hardest to watch and one of the most frightening. I didn't know If I should be smiling or crying at the end (for the record, it was both). the story was heartbreaking, the creatures were stunning, Ophelia was realistic, Vidal was just plain insanely scary.

    I always say i love dark epic beautiful novels, the grittier the better. I guess this was that, but in movie form, and I had no idea how to react to it. Thinking about it that way makes me want to watch Pan's Labrynth again!