“In the face of evil, claim your destiny”
Directed by Sergei Bodrov
Starring Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes, Julianne Moore and Alicja Vikander
Master Gregory (Bridges), the last survivor of the knightly order known as the Falcons (or colloquially as the Spooks,) seeks out seventh son of a seventh son Tom Ward (Barnes) to be his apprentice. They have a week until the blood moon gives witch queen Mother Malkin (Moore) the power to cover all the lands in a second darkness, or some such thing.
Malkin unleashes her savage minions to prevent the Spook and his apprentice interfering with her plans, but Tom has a gift from his mother (Olivia Williams) and the heart of the young witch Alice (Vikander), and that could mean the end of Malkin once and for all.
What’s wrong with it?
I’m going to skip over the fact that the film is a very bad adaptation of Joseph Delaney’s The Wardstone Chronicles.
All right, I’m not going to ‘skip’, but I will try to be brief: The books are set in a fictionalised version of Lancashire, the film in a particularly British Columbian and monster infested corner of Westeros and/or Middle Earth. The books begin with a brooding malice and only progress to big ass monsters around book five, the film is dragons from five minutes in. The Pendle Witches in the book are witches from the village of Pendle, home of one of Britain’s most famous actual witch trials; in the film they have a fabulous fortress on Pendle Mountain (the real one has a hill.) Bony Lizzie is so called because she is a bone witch, using the thumb bones of her victims in her magic; in the film she turns into a dragon and fights with swords, and is presumably called bony because… um…
In the book, the Spooks are an informal alliance of folk practitioners who battle the darkness for walking around money; in the film they are the remnants of an order of chivalry called the Falcons (which sounds much more like a super team than an order of chivalry) who are fucking minted and still quibble over the bill each time they fight evil. Master Gregory is also turned from a sombre, temperate man who fasts before a battle to a hard-drinking brawler, and his weird relationship with a morally ambivalent Greek witch is replaced with a love affair with Mother Malkin and a murdered wife to explain his grumpy old guy thing.
Tom fights the dark with a handful of subtle innate powers and a stick with a hidden blade in the tip (and okay, eventually a magic sword), or in the movie with a magic flamethrower that I like to call the Witchbuster 5000.
Tom and Alice are 20, rather than 12, which completely changes the nature of their relationship and makes their steadfast dedication to family against considered ethics rather less reasonable.
That wasn’t much of a skip, but that’s because so much of what was changed about the movie seemed to make it stupider than the source material.
Oh, and in the film Tom’s Mam is offed dismissively by Mother Malkin; in the books she dies leaping down the throat of a chaos god to five finger death punch it in the heart. This change is unacceptable. Mam should be awesome, especially when she’s played by Olivia Williams (which she is.)
The witches wreak vengeance on a city where one of their number (he turned into a bear, because all the witches apart from Alice turn into shit) was burned. It’s called ‘the Walled City’, for realsies. It is also apparently the only city in the world and in easy reach of everywhere, since Tom’s family shop there despite living on a self-sufficient smallholding on a remote fucking island.
The witches also travel by smoke comets that they must have on rental from Lord Voldemort and his death eaters.
All the British actors (and Vikander, who is Swedish) are doing American accents. It’s really distracting, and fits neither Lancashire nor Middle Westeros. Trauer on the other hand is totally German, and yet is Malkin’s sister and Alice’s mother. I have honestly no idea where the fuck Bridges is supposed to be from; the darkest recesses of bad Shakespeare or something.
Malkin’s minions are a really weird bunch of ethnic stereotypes. Djimon Hounsou as an assassin lord is okay, because he’s Djimon Hounsou and he plays a lot of assassins just because he’s good at it, but the blue dude with four arms is more than a touch insensitive; people sometimes forget that Hinduism is a living religion and not a Tolkien novel. Also, he’s the King of Swords, with four arms and four swords, but Alice kinda whips him in a sword fight. Oh, and there’s a bear dude and a warlock who looks like he should be driving an elephant outside of Minas Tirith, but Mam kills him with really slow telekinesis.
Despite Gregory being all ‘yay witch killing!’, Malkin is basically taken out in a designated girl/witch/dragon fight, which… is actually nowhere near as cool as that sounds like it should be.
What’s right with it?
The special effects are really quite shiny, and the cast do at least look as if they’re having a blast.
How bad is it really?
The original books are dark fantasy tales with an undernote of creeping horror and desperate adventure. This film manages to catch precisely none of these things. It’s really, really disappointing, the more so because it took so long to come out.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Pursued by a boggan, the Spook explains that it is blind and hates water. They leap into a river and it leaps after them.
Tom: When it comes to boggans, I’m beginning to question you as a source of information.
What’s up with…?
- The weird mix of costumes? There is no period here at all.
- The witches’ preference for spiky chains?
Production values – The production design is good, but so uneven that it almost ruins itself. There’s little or no sense of theme to the world, no consistency, and none of the sense of what witches and the Dark are that held the books together. 12
Dialogue and performances – The players are all amazing actors, but the performances in this bad boy are all over the place, not least the accents. 13
Plot and execution – The film is pretty much just a mess of action scenes and flailing spiky chains. The fairly simple plot is played up as apocalyptic without any clear idea of what the real stakes are. It seems as if the witches can pretty much do what they want anyway, so what’s the big whoop about this blood moon ritual thing? 16
Randomness – Hindu god King of Swords? Leopard woman? (Yeah, I forgot to mention the leopard woman.) Dragons? Alice and Tom falling totally in love in minutes. 13
Waste of potential – A poor adaptation that doesn’t really make the grade as its own thing. 20