It’s almost impossible in the world of teasers, trailers and special features to go into a film without knowing much about it. Even harder when the film is an adaptation of some other property – in this case a well-known and well-loved Sondheim musical. However, as with all people I have some black holes in my cultural references, and this was one of them. I was hugely excited to see a film where I didn’t know much more than a) it was a musical with fairy tale elements and b) a whole bunch of incredible people had been corralled together to do it – all in the UK in and around Shepperton, no less.
Usually, going in blank is an incredible bonus; here, unfortunately, I think it confused me because I left still not entirely sure I understood the film as a whole. Not the plot – that’s clear enough – but the overall vision stitched together out of gleaming but very distinct threads.
The tale is of a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) who set off into the woods to obtain elements from different stories – the collective power of which will restore their ability to have a child, following a curse laid on the Baker’s house by the mother of the local Witch (Meryl Streep). As their desperate search unfolds, they cross paths with a precocious Little Red (Lilla Crawford), a dim-witted boy with a propensity for stealing from giants (Daniel Huttlestone) and an indecisive Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), among others…
There are at least two excellent stories here; one, the tale of a marriage reacting to the stresses and strains of infertility and the promise of parenthood in the shadows of an unfortunate past, is driven by a constantly watchable Emily Blunt, whose voice and presence are beautifully dominant. When she leaves the screen it’s like a light going out, and it’s quite funny to consider the position she was in the last time she shared a screen with Streep. Mixed in with this is a stirring, darkly funny satire about fairy tales, in which a brace of preening princes – “I was raised to be charming, not sincere” – flounce their way through the forest in scenes that wrung belly laughs from the audience. Chris Pine in particular is an absolute revelation; I’ve always been a bit so-so about his Kirk, but he won me over completely here. Somewhat unsurprisingly, given the calibre of the cast, performances across the board were great, with the big stand out for me being 13-year-old Lilla Crawford, imbuing the precociously dreadful Little Red with real depth of character – and occasionally showing some of the adults how a real belter of a musical number works. I did keep thinking young Huttlestone was going to burst into an audition piece of Consider Yourself, but enjoyed his scenes with his overbearing mum (the always marvellous Tracy Ullman).
In terms of key musical moments, hearing that Stay With Me has been bringing people to tears left, right and centre is no surprise – it’s beautiful. Pine and Billy Magnusson’s Agony is hilariously perfect, and, if it’s not obvious yet, I was pretty much sold every time Blunt was on screen. I think I might want to be her when I grow up.
If I had a problem with the whole, it was in not quite understanding how it all hung together in terms of pace and tone. I could practically see the scenes as they would be rendered on stage – this little cluster of dialogue under a spotlight here, suddenly switching to a group over there, then back and forth – but I couldn’t quite get to grips with these sudden jumps on screen. I think this is something of a hallmark of Rob Marshall’s films – he applies his wealth of theatrical experience to a film and sometimes it really, really works (Chicago) and sometimes I’m not sure it does (Memoirs of a Geisha). I’m left dying to see a stage production so I can understand this in its natural habitat, and really get to the heart of Marshall’s vision. I now understand this differs in substantial ways to the original production, albeit with Sondheim’s blessing; I’m a great believer in being quite brutal with adaptations if it fits the intended medium better, so I just wonder if Marshall could have sliced and diced even further. I do think the film is at its best in a cinema; it needs the grandness of the dimmed lights and the group experience to really bring out its best.
In the end I was left feeling intrigued, and surprisingly uncertain; I’m usually very opinionated on what I’ve seen but this left me outside my comfort zone – no bad thing, in fairness. I am very glad I’ve seen it plus I haven’t really stopped humming since (warning for Sondheim newbs – it’s the continuous-recitative-with-breakout-numbers type of musical, not the dialogue-interspersed-with-songs type; nothing wrong with that, but you should know if you have any strong preferences in this area). I’m really curious to see how the general reception goes in the UK, given it’s slamming through box office records in the US where it opened back on Christmas Day.
Into The Woods is on general release in the UK from Friday, 9th Jan.
Disclaimer: my thanks to @Disney_UK, who provided two tickets to the screening last night. Thoughts and opinions are my own.