Tuesday 6 December 2016

Film review: Spielberg makes giant success of well-loved 'BFG'

Paul Whitington

Published 23/07/2016 | 07:00

Giant undertaking: Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill star in The BFG.
Giant undertaking: Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill star in The BFG.

It's hard to imagine Steven Spielberg ever getting nervous about anything, but taking on this sacred cow may just have given him pause for thought. Roald Dahl's sweet- and-nasty children's story has sold somewhere close to 60 million copies to date, and is cherished by generations of readers ready to pounce like angry dogs on any film-maker who makes a hash of it.

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Ever since Roald Dahl released 'The BFG' back in 1982, Hollywood has been talking about adapting it. In the 1990s Paramount came close, and wanted to cast Robin Williams as the Giant.

When called for a reading, he immediately began improving his way through 'The BFG''s strange locutions, and the producers realised they were in trouble.

Talented as he was, Williams would have been disastrous in the part, and toxic to the dark subtleties of Dahl's writing. Sometimes casting is everything, and Spielberg's The BFG has got it exactly right.

The director has been chasing Mark Rylance to work with him for decades, and the pair joined forces for the first time last year in the excellent 'Bridge of Spies', which won Rylance an Oscar.

The slight and elfin actor might not have been everyone's first choice to play a 24-foot giant, but Spielberg clearly wanted subtlety as well as size, and Rylance's astonishing motion-capture performance gives this picture emotional depth.

Eleven-year-old schoolgirl Ruby Barnhill is also well cast as Sophie, a salty London orphan who embarks on an unexpected adventure. Sophie's looking out the window of her orphanage one night when she sees what she thinks is a long, gaunt giant lurking in the shadows.

Seeing he's been spotted, the giant reaches through the window with a great, hairy hand and pulls Sophie out.

They race off across land and sea till the giant reaches its lair on a tiny Scottish island. When he starts cooking, Sophie reckons she's the main course till he quietly explains that he's a vegetarian, his stable being the snozzcumber, a slimy vegetable which induces terrifying farts.

The Big Friendly Giant, as Sophie soon christens him, can read, loves songs and stories, and is as gentle as a lamb.

The same, however, cannot be said for his neighbours, huge, uncouth giants with names like 'Fleshlumpeater' and 'Bloodbottler' who bully the BFG and would gobble Sophie up as soon as they laid eyes on her. They've been stealing humans and eating them, and Sophie and the BFG hatch a plan to stop them that will involve the Queen of England.

Based on a screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison, Spielberg's collaborator on 'E.T.', The BFG is both faithful to the original story and full of its own imaginative touches.

Cgi and motion capture wonderfully render the giant's lolloping movements, and instead of giving us a pantomime monster, Mark Rylance creates a mournful, almost melancholic character with a kindly twinkle in his eye.

His performance grounds the film, and he treats Roald Dahl's delightful nonsense rhymes as respectfully as he would Shakespeare.

Ruby Barnhill is very good as an orphan who's more spiky than cute, and Spielberg's appealingly old-fashioned film is full of emotion, and heart.

The BFG

(PG, 117mins)

4 Stars

Irish Independent

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