This new version of The Wolfman tries to make its story similarly tragic, layering in Oedipal conflicts and doomed love, but it never quite makes us feel the emotion.
The movie is set in England in 1891. Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is a successful stage actor who was born in Britain but raised largely in America, and hasn’t spoken with his family in many years. While appearing as Hamlet onstage in London, Lawrence receives a letter from Gwen (Emily Blunt), the fiancée of his brother Ben, who has recently gone missing. Lawrence goes home to help with the search, but arrives in time only to see the mangled corpse of his brother, who was presumably killed by some wild beast.
Once back in his hometown of Blackmoor, Lawrence visits his family estate, the decrepit hulk Talbot Hall, and meets his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins). Sir John spends most of his time rattling around the crumbling old manse and is given to saying things like, “Never look back. The past is a wilderness of horrors.”
There are rumors around the village about what might have killed Ben — a lunatic, an escaped bear or the gypsies camped on the edge of town being the most popular theories — and Lawrence decides to stick around and investigate, but he is soon attacked himself, and finds himself experiencing firsthand what killed his brother.
This film was a passion project for Del Toro, who also serves as a producer, but he seems weirdly uninterested here. Del Toro’s work in films such as The Usual Suspects, The Way of the Gun and Traffic is characterized by lively, idiosyncratic rhythms, but his performance here is oddly muted. Del Toro can be appropriately feral, and his performance comes to life during the scenes when he is about to transform, but Lawrence never seems particularly afflicted by his wretched fate. Rather, he just seems numb.
Blunt is engaging, but she likewise doesn’t show the spark that can be found in many of her other performances. She is around mainly to give Lawrence a connection to the world as he descends more and more into the beast, and the script (by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self) depicts a growing love between Lawrence and Gwen that never feels earned. The attraction could have been meant to be some sort of desperate connection between two grieving people, but despite the actors’ efforts the script never manages to sell anything approaching that depth, and the characters’ love feels at best perfunctory and schematic. When the two fall in love, it seems more than anything else like it happens because the film says that a werewolf can only be killed by someone who loves him.
Hopkins fares a little better, with some of his patented scenery chewing. In the original Wolfman, Lawrence’s father was forced to kill his son after he became a monster. Here, though, Sir John almost goads his son on, telling him to let the beast run free, and we can see that Hopkins has already learned to embrace the beast in himself. Hopkins comes close at times to going over the top, but he at least is having fun with his role.
Hugo Weaving also manages to find a little meat on the bones of the script. He plays Francis Abberline, the detective assigned to find out who killed Ben Talbot, and who unsuccessfully had tried to catch Jack the Ripper a few years before. Weaving is fascinating to watch as Abberline, a rational man who doesn’t believe that men can transform into beasts, but when confronted with it up close and personal, he has no choice but to go along with it.
It’s quite interesting that the villagers needed very little convincing before they started melting down their silverware to make bullets. Superstition still reigned. They knew all about the wolf. This was a time when science was still relatively primitive and brutal (check out the electroshock and freezing water “therapies” in the film’s insane asylum), and prayer would bring about results just about as effective as relying on science.
The film is set in the eerie, phantasmagorical version of Victorian England that is depicted in films such as the recent Sherlock Holmes and From Hell (indeed, Weaving plays the real-life detective that Johnny Depp played in From Hell), and it is wonderfully atmospheric. Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, October Sky) directed the film, taking over late in preproduction from Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo), and he makes the entire film feel like a fever dream of evocative gothic gloom. The film is stuffed with misty forests and desolate moors, ominous shadows and raging waterfalls. Talbot Hall is a marvel of dead leaves, cobwebs and candlelight. The voluptuously full moon haunts the film, seemingly visible even from the indoors.
Yet despite all the gloomy mood and atmosphere, when the film decides it’s time for some bloodletting, it doesn’t mess around. The gore is plentiful here, and there are several terrific action set pieces — such as when the wolf tears apart the gypsy camp, or when Lawrence changes into the wolf in a room full of scientists. Blood sprays, limbs are strews around the screen and entrails become extrails. The fact that the film gets so giddy with the gore makes kind of an awkward tonal shift from when it wants to be a grand tragedy or a doomed love story, and rather keeps us from taking those aspirations seriously.
The Wolfman can be very exciting, with horrifying action, lovely atmosphere and quality wolf-transformation special effects, which are a combination of CGI and Rick Baker’s makeup. But whenever the movie goes for emotions or subtext it fails. The movie really wants us to feel the tragedy of Lawrence Talbot, but it never quite digs below the surface.
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