Sunday, 11 January 2015

Into the Woods - movie review


I think George R R Martin learned everything he needed to know about author brutality from Stephen Sondheim.

Into the Woods is a luscious, witty, deceptively cruel movie based on the 27-yr-old stage musical. I watched the DVD of the Broadway production last night, followed by the new movie version on the big screen today, because there was a lot of media fuss about the differences and I wanted to be sure.

I loved it ... I'm just not sure at all that I like it.

For those who haven't seen any version, the musical falls into two halves (separated starkly by an interval in the theatrical version). The first act is a tapestry of interwoven familiar fairy-tales (Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel) linked by the story of a baker and his wife who are trying to break a witch's curse and so conceive a longed-for child.

The witch is played beautifully by Meryl Streep, who is a much better singer than I ever anticipated.

There are catchy, haunting songs with clever-clogs Sondheim lyrics ("while her withers wither with her") that I long to write down and steal. It's laugh-out-loud funny in places and I was rolling in my seat during the duet between the two dickhead handsome princes:

You know, of course, just how the stories are supposed to go ... and yes, by the end of Act One all the quests have been completed, the brides claimed, the monsters killed, the wishes fulfilled ... and everyone is going to live happily ever after. Huzzah!

Johnny Depp's paedophilic Wolf, btw, is practically a cameo. Thank goodness, because he is SO GODDAMN CREEPY.

Then comes Act Two, which fucks everything over in a character bloodbath of random and undeserved destruction that would do Game of Thrones proud. Every decision taken in the first half  turns out to have terrible consequences. True Love disintegrates as lovers stray. Happy-Ever-After turns to loss, despair and deep existential and moral uncertainty. It's one of the bleakest landscapes in musical theatre, and if it has a message that must be "No man is an island, and I don't mean that in a comforting way. Everything we do has the potential to screw things over for other people. And that will come back to bite you, because they are not islands either."

Before the movie release there was a lot of worry that it would be bowdlerised and Disneyfied. I can reassure you that those fears are (largely) unfounded. The narrator and baker's father have been trimmed out, to good effect. A few of the songs have been cut (for reasons of length, I strongly suspect) and the movie is indeed slightly less brutal than the stage version - in particular Rapunzel makes it out alive with her prince (whereas in the stage play she's so damaged by her upbringing that she goes insane and commits suicide), and Jack's mother isn't deliberately clubbed down; she is pushed over and smacks her head on a log instead. But by the end there are still basically only four characters standing, all bereaved and labouring under the witch's "screw you guys, I'm going home" curse that one suspects will see them make the same stupid selfish mistakes over and over again. It ends, after all, with Cinderella uttering the fateful words "I wish..."

This is what wishing got you last time. Will you NEVER learn?!

It's basically a family film in which the first half of the movie is for the kids (and the kid in all of us) and the second half is emphatically for adults. I still don't know if it works. The satisfying ending is in the middle, the ultimate ending is unsettling and painful.

I'll watch it over and over again.

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