Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Judi Dench, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Jane Goldman


In a perfect world any film that combines the concepts of X-Men and Groundhog Day with Tim Burton’s style ought to be a guaranteed recipe for success. Sadly our world is far from perfect and so is this film. Burton, a singular visual director who practically created his own genre as he produced hit after hit in the 80s and 90s, has maintained an uneven career for the better part of two decades now. For every Big Fish and Sweeney Todd, he has made a Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland. Nowadays the tropes that once made him an innovator and a visionary, from the gothic sets and costumes to the creepy and inventive visuals to the weird and eccentric characters, tend to lean more towards cliché and self-parody. Style over substance isn’t always a bad thing when the style is in itself something to be admired, but it is deadly once that style becomes tiring or is used half-heartedly.

Jake Portman first heard about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children from his grandfather Abe (Terrence Stamp) in his bedtime stories. The house, so Abe says, is where he grew up along with a collection of other children who possess extraordinary abilities. After his grandfather dies a gruesome death Jake, on the advice of his therapist Dr. Golan (Allison Janney) sets off for the Welsh island with his father Franklin (Chris O’Dowd) to visit the house. At first all he finds is the estate’s remains after it was destroyed by a Luftwaffe bomb in 1943. Later he is found by some of the Peculiar Children who then lead him into a cave that transports them back in time to that very year. Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), it turns out, is able to keep her house and the children hidden from outsiders by storing them in a time loop. With her are the Peculiar Children, including Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell), a girl with the ability to fly, and Enoch O’Connor (Finlay MacMillan), a necromancer. Miss Peregrine’s Home however is threatened by strange creatures called Hollows, led by the sinister shapeshifter Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), and Jake is the only one who can help them.

The story hits the usual notes you might expect from a Burton movie. It focuses on a social outcast who finds meaning and belonging in a weird and wonderful world that differs from our own. Burton however does not bring the conviction or the commitment to this story that is so readily apparent in his earlier work. His style is evident in the film’s subdued colour palette and eerie designs, but the world he creates feels so spiritless and indifferent. There is no enthusiasm in the pursuit and discovery of the strange, no sensation to the ethereal nature of this universe, no wonder in the meeting of the innocent with the macabre. The man who used to speak volumes in every frame and who could always find charm and beauty in the strange and sinister now resorts to gratuitous exposition and depicts the peculiar for little more than peculiarity’s sake. Apart from the few brief glimpses we are allowed into Burton’s twisted and creative soul, the film is without life and originality.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the protagonist Jake, an introverted teenager with the personality of a cardboard box. In spite of Butterfield’s best efforts (putting aside his attempt at an American accent), Jake is an utterly forgettable and wooden character who cannot conjure a single emotion for love, wonder or pain. The shoe-horned romance he shares with Emma is so contrived and stale that I almost thought I was watching a gender-swapped rendition of Twilight. Accompanying him is a collection of superficially odd characters whose personalities are defined by their abilities and little else. Of all the actors whose talents went to dismal waste in this film (a list that includes Terence Stamp, Allison Janney, Judi Dench and Kim Dickens), only two brought any life to their performances. One is Eva Green as Miss Peregrine, an actress whose ability to chew scenery rivals that of Helena Bonham Carter. The other is Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who lives for the absurd and excessive.

The movie’s one other redeeming feature is its climax which is as enjoyably over the top as it is ludicrously nonsensical. As I approached the third act I found that I wasn’t in the least bit invested in the showdown that was to take place between the bland, characterless goodies and the painfully incompetent baddies. That attitude remains unchanged, but at least I got to watch a battle between a horde of invisible eye-gouging monsters and a legion of stop-motion Jason and the Argonauts skeletons in the middle of a seaside carnival. It comes nowhere close to saving the film, but I’ll take what I can get. All things considered, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is not the worst work Burton has produced recently but it is a testament to how far he has fallen since the days of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. While I can hardly say that the climatic battle is reason enough to watch this film, it is at the very least an assurance that some of the magic is still there. I hope to see more of it in his next project.

★★

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X+Y

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann

Director: Morgan Matthews

Writer: James Graham


Before embarking on this film Morgan Matthews directed another film called Beautiful Young Minds, a documentary that followed the British team that competed in the 2006 International Mathematical Olympiad. While making this film he saw that many of the young mathematicians he filmed had varying forms of autism. He saw how they would often struggle to understand and make sense of other people and how mathematics was able to provide them with the order and stability that they sought. So moved and inspired was by these boys that he set out to make a film based on their experiences. X+Y is the result of this ambition.

The film is centred on Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) who is diagnosed with autism at the age of 6. Even at such a young age he is shown to possess an advanced mind but displays a clear incomprehension towards people and the world around him. He is able to make some sense of the world with the aid of his father Michael (Martin McCann) until he loses him in a car accident. After that happens nothing makes sense anymore. The only place where he can find any sense of order is in the study of mathematics and so his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) enlists a special maths teacher called Humphreys (Rafe Spall) to tutor him. Julie is a mother who was never prepared to have a child who requires special care and struggles to form any kind of a reciprocal bond between them. She constantly tries to show her love to Nathan and tries to become more involved in his life but receives only puzzlement and indifference in return. Humphreys is a former mathematical prodigy who also competed in the Olympiad. Today he suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and resents himself for not having lived up to his potential. He sees much of himself in Nathan and does not want him to end up like himself.

When Nathan reaches the age of 16 he decides to try out for the International Mathematical Olympiad. He lacks self-confidence and is at an age where it is difficult to be socially awkward, and so he relies heavily on Humphreys who is effectively his one and only friend. Mathematics is the one thing that Nathan truly enjoys and so he pushes himself to be the best at it. He does well in his test and is chosen to join a training program in Taiwan where he will have the chance to qualify for Great Britain’s team. He is sent there along with eleven other British pupils who, like Nathan, are all smart but, unlike Nathan, most of them are able to get along socially. This leads Nathan to experience a sense of alienation and inadequacy. His father had often reassured him that his condition was a little like having super powers, and so it is discouraging for Nathan to find himself in a place where he is “depressingly average”. Not only does he struggle to distinguish and to express himself, he also finds it difficult to interpret his own feelings when he is partnered up with the pretty Zhang Mei (Jo Yang). The film’s overarching story is about Nathan’s quest to come out of his shell and to learn to understand his own thoughts and feelings.

Asa Butterfield does a convincingly good job of playing Nathan and of portraying the symptoms of autism. Nathan is ultimately a young man who only wants order and balance in his life but loses them when he loses his father. He is unable to understand the true depths of his father’s loss or the profound effect it has had on him. Instead he tries to compensate for his absence with the logical stability found in mathematics, inadvertently neglecting his mother in the process. When he leaves his comfort zone he is forced to confront his feelings. The film draws an interesting parallel to Nathan through the character of Luke Shelton (Jake Davies), another autistic student who estranges the rest of the team through his hostile anti-social behaviour. Luke is able to understand that people tend not to like him but is unable to figure out how to win them over. Like Nathan he has turned to mathematics as a source of comfort and reassurance. When Nathan sees how volatile Luke can become, it adds some perspective to his own life and struggles.

Matthews has stated that it was not his intention to make a film about autism, but about the experiences of one boy on the spectrum. What results is a touching film about the challenges and struggles faced by Nathan in his journey to understand the world and himself. He comes to learn that not everything in the world makes sense nor can they all be broken down to ones and zeros. Instead of his head he must learn to rely on his heart in order to understand the natures of love, grief, and joy.

★★★★