Tuesday 23 January 2018

Film review - Doctor Strange: When you're strange, mystics come out of the rain

Marvel has finally cracked the superhero franchise - talent, entertainment and wit all in one

Training: Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch star in Marvel's latest superhero caper 'Doctor Strange'
Training: Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch star in Marvel's latest superhero caper 'Doctor Strange'

Paul Whitington

I should be honest here, regarding my comic book credentials, and admit that I'd never heard of Doctor Strange until this latest Marvel blockbuster appeared on the schedules. The character, I have since learned, was created by the legendary artist Steve Ditko way back in the early 1960s, and subsequently became a cult hit among LSD-dropping hippies, to whom his time-bending exploits made total sense. But drug addicts are not always the best arbiters of literary merit, and I must say I approached this production with a certain amount of dread: not just another superhero movie, but a mystic superhero movie! God help us all.

But Doctor Strange turns out to have a couple of things going for it: a cast of real actors, a clever director, and a plan. Most of the Marvel movies, however entertaining, are built to a finely tuned formula and designed to fit, like building blocks, into an overarching franchise plan. They're lumpen and predictable, but Scott Derrickson's film is a welcome exception to the rule. It's the most enjoyable Marvel picture I've seen since the first 'Captain America' movie, and one of the best superhero pictures of recent years.

Mr Derrickson, who made his name making fine low-budget horror films like 'Sinister' and 'The Exorcism of Emily Rose', brings a lightness of touch to this ubiquitous genre, and his and C Robert Cargill's screenplay keeps character to the fore and never lets their film's magnificent effects overwhelm the story. It's a bit of a delight in fact, full of sly jokes and very fine performances.

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as Stephen Strange, a top neurosurgeon who lords it over all and sundry at the Manhattan hospital where he works. He's a know-it-all, a strutting peacock, whose pride alienates anyone who gets close to him. But he's in for a bit of a fall. Strange is giving orders via telephone to one of his minions while speeding along a winding country road when he crashes, tumbles down a hillside and wakes in hospital to find that his precious hands have been mangled.

His operating career is over, but Strange refuses to accept it, and hides out in his plush apartment moaning, drinking and railing against the world. All seems lost until he meets a man who was paralysed after breaking his back, but miraculously recovered after consulting a mysterious guru in the east. So Strange packs a bag and heads to Kathmandu, where his terrible personality makes him new enemies until he's rescued by a stranger called Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who takes him to meet his mysterious leader.

The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) is a soft-spoken guru and a master of the magic arts: she can pass through time and space by creating impromptu portals, and leads a group of like-minded mystics who protect the Earth from sinister pan-dimensional enemies. At first Strange couldn't care less about any of that mumbo-jumbo: he wants the Ancient One to cure his mangled hands, and is only playing along. But as he finds out more about this new and mystical world, Strange becomes fascinated in its intoxicating possibilities.

Doctor Strange's plot, I will grant you, sounds annoying. But don't be put off by that, because Mr Derrickson and his actors tell their tall tale beautifully, and use sparingly but well special effects reminiscent of Christopher Nolan's 'Inception', but better. Streets and buildings fold and separate as Strange and his buddies fight their way around them, but somehow one never gets lost in all that, and the thread of Mr Derrickson's narrative is strong.

To Benedict Cumberbatch's credit, the sneering and superior Strange feels like a new character rather than an extension of his Sherlock Holmes, Chiwetel Ejiofor's Murdo fumes eloquently in the background, and Mads Mikkelsen adds depth and dimension to the film's villain, Kaecilius.

Sporting Buddhist garb and a shaved head, Tilda Swinton might look like a talking egg, but hasn't lost her comic timing, and she and Mr Cumberbatch work together beautifully in successive scenes. It's a lot of fun, and commendably mind-bending.

Doctor Strange

(12A, 115mins)

4 Stars

Films coming soon...

The Accountant (Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons); Nocturnal Animals (Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal); The Light Between Oceans (Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander); A Street Cat Named Bob (Luke Treadaway).

Irish Independent

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