Well now, what is me to make of dis squiggly-wriggly story of bad an’ goodsome giants an’ abducted orphans? There’s just a hint of the darkest missminded adults who likes little childrikens for all the wrong reasons. This is very creepy stuff, I is thinking.
And it be all spokified in a sort of upmarket versatility of malipropisms, and the late annoying Professor Stanley Unwin’s gobbledegook. He was a one trick goon we all laughed at whose teeth did dance to his speechifying, what yon goggle-box used to bring on as the funny bit in a serious programme, till one day we got fart bored with him and his silliness. Roald Dahl what scrabbled the book of this film, The BFG, surely knew of his mumblin’ and chuffin’ and inward-outward words by the way he’s grabulated his stickle word guzzling. I is sorely swirlbrained by it, I must say.
The Spielberg weakness
When you approach a Speilbergian movie beware of two things, a chronic inability to achieve comedy, and a surfeit of sentimentality. There’s good and bad sentimentality, but for some reason Steven Spielberg always plumps for the latter.
You only need to recall the cringeworthy moments in his otherwise wonderful ET – The Extra-Terrestrial to remember how well Spielberg can do stomach churning sickly sweet, a film whose idea was generously donated by the master Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray. (I hope he was paid handsomely.)
As for the coda of Speilberg’s bleak holocaust movie, Schindler’s List when the anti-hero bursts out crying in good Hollywood theatrical fashion in front of a large audience of admirers, oh dear. “I know you all love me; I know you all love me now.”
I’m not convinced Spielberg can do comedy. It’s there in abundance in his adventure blockbusters; Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws, each has lots of guffaws but they’re sight gags of the tension-breaking kind. When the director tries for outright comedy he usually falls flat on his face. 1941 was a disaster, and Hook wasn’t much better.
Family is his forte
What Spielberg is adept at doing is directing family scenes. Outside the humanism of Satyajit Ray’s masterful Pather Panchali, a film that will outlast BFG by millennia, I can’t recall another film director handling children with the same finesse. But in this film he has only one, the young girl, leaving him to extract as much as he can get from their scenes together in the giant’s cave where the BFG collects people’s good and bad dreams.
Actually, with the exception of the final scenes in Buckingham Palace, we are essentially asked to hang out with the very odd couple, and enjoy the relationship develop. Sadly, that isn’t what Spielberg does well. He likes action not stasis. He simply is unable to hold our attention over the minutia of domestic trivia. He can’t handle extended dialogue scenes. I should know – I appeared in one for fun, Catch Me If You Can, directed by him, and next to Hanks and that brat DiCaprio. The five minute scene took two days to shoot, less than fifteen seconds made it to the finished film.
Dahl’s children’s books are full of comedy that helps lighten up the dark corners, and the BFG has – for children – two hilarious set piece farting scenes. How does Spielberg handle the dinner table farting, especially at the Palace with Her Majesty? The answer is, with admirable brevity. So we shall leave it there, Ma’am.
Death of a collaborator
The screenplay was written by Spielberg’s long-time collaborator, Melissa Mathison, who died just after its completion, the film dedicated to her. (Previous credits include ET. the Extra Terrestrial and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun. Mathison was a campaigner for Tibetan political freedom.) I wonder if she was disappointed with the result. The BFG is not really a comedy, although I did find myself giggling a lot, but only for the first half.
It starts off in a mode that has always served Spielberg well, with mystery and tension and horror. So, too, does The BFG open with menacing undertones, as Sophie, a young girl in a dowdy orphanage (Ruby Barnhill) witnesses a terrifying giant (Mark Rylance) wandering a dark alley one night. The giant abducts her, and Spielberg shoots their initial meeting with both dread and whimsy. We are hooked.
The film is faithful to Dahl’s original: The giant whisks the girl off to a magic land – a lot of it shot on Scotland’s Skye – where she discovers that he’s a much taunted and put upon giant by other far less friendly ones, giants that eat ‘beins’, giants much bigger than him.
And so, Scotland gets another kick up the cultural ass. Variations on Sawney Bean came before man eating giants, such as The Hills Have Eyes, and Jeykll and Hyde has been done to death. By the way, there are no female giants, which makes the story creepier.
Melancholy pervades everything
“Why did you choose me?” asks Sophie. “Because I hears the loneliness in your heart,” answers the BFG. If the book and the film is ‘about’ anything, it’s about loneliness and suppressed aspiration.
To be candid, I never got the point of Dahl’s children’s books. (I did get his screenplay for You Only Live Twice.) I loved the illustrations by Quentin Blake, but bringing up two girls I reached for alternative stories of the time; all seemed to have greater relevance to their lives. I got the distinct impression Dahl had a love-hate relationship with the little bread snappers, particularly after I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Though Ruby Barnhill is good as the wide eyed, precocious orphan, the film belongs to Rylance in its entirety. He is quite magnificent in a soulful, Method acting way, and, dare I say it, the sole reason for paying the ticket price.
- Star rating: Three stars
- Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill
Director: Steven Spielberg
- Writer: Melissa Mathison
- Composer: John Williams
- Duration: 117 mins