CS Lewis‘s classic of children’s fantasy literature, to which six instalments of steeply declining interest and power were added, has now been brought to the screen by Andrew Adamson, of Shrek fame. The result is a triumph. It is gorgeous to look at, superbly cast, wittily directed and funny and exciting by turns. It unfolds the slim book into a rich visual experience that is bold and spectacular and sweeping, while retaining its human intimacies. I can’t see how it could be done better. Perhaps Mel Gibson would have preferred Aslan to be whipped with barbed wire for 30 minutes before the main event, but Adamson handles it with finesse.
There will be many adults like me, who after loving the book as children went through a long post-adolescent phase of hysterically repudiating it after the Christian-humanist parable was explained. For me, it is a phase that this movie has definitively brought to an end. Adamson brings out the story’s romantic gallantry and its wonderfully generous approach to childhood. For all the rhapsodic seriousness, and Blakean associations of England with Christianity, the film has a lightness of touch.
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Simply by having human beings as characters, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is different from Tolkien and his heavy-footed myth – though, naturally, there is a connection, and Adamson sensibly builds on Peter Jackson’s technical achievements in staging and narrative. What the director has done is bring it closer to the playful gravity of Lewis Carroll, and also the insouciant escapades of the young quartet in Enid Blyton’s Adventure series.
As all the world knows, this is the story of four middle-class children in the second world war, whose father is away fighting the evil of Nazism. They are evacuated from Finchley, in London, to a country house, which is here increased to the size of a gigantic mansion, presided over by an apparently crotchety but actually very decent old boy, played (rather too fleetingly) by Jim Broadbent. The youngest of the children, Lucy – a scene-stealer of a performance from newcomer Georgie Henley – plays hide-and-seek with her boisterous siblings and leaps into a wardrobe, pushing through a dense mass of furs that become firs (as in a Freudian dream). She stumbles out into a snowy forest in the land of Narnia, in whose snowflake-swirl a gaslight dimly glows.
The place is under the spell of the evil White Witch, who has caused it to remain forever “winter without Christmas”, until liberated by the four saviour-children under the command of the lion Aslan, a redeemer figure voiced by Liam Neeson. With the help of friendly beavers, spoken by Dawn French and Ray Winstone, and a droll, worldly fox (Rupert Everett), the children fearlessly embrace their destiny. The battles unfold like a richly coloured tapestry, with art direction inspired by the fluttering pennants and tented encampments of Olivier’s Henry V.
Tilda Swinton plays the White Witch, and it is her finest hour. She has always been as much icon as actor, a kind of living, breathing installation – and therefore difficult to cast, especially in a modern setting. But her statuesque hauteur and that otherworldly presence are sublimely right here. Her white-fringed, padded-shoulder gown reminded me of the queenly Aquascutum outfit Mrs Thatcher wore in Paris on the fateful night of her leadership vote in 1990.
Swinton has a particularly good opening scene, in which the White Witch tempts young Edmund (Skandar Keynes) into betraying his friends with an insidious, addictive dollop of Turkish Delight. Keynes is very persuasive as the venally weak Edmund: a figure traditionally glossed as Judas, although there is something more recognisable and English about Edmund’s failure. Later, the White Witch is to sneer at the captured faun Mr Tumnus (James McAvoy) that his fellow captive Edmund “turned you in for sweeties”. That line reminded me, not entirely ironically, of Winston Smith and Syme in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and how wickedness and wretchedness can be found beneath the surface of English decency. The final sacrifice of Aslan is conveyed with absolute seriousness, yet never feels preachy.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a miraculously complete, digestible epic in itself, and I wonder if annual episodes of the succeeding six stories, in which Lewis boxed himself into an ever-narrowing theological corner, might be rather heavy weather – especially as the children will presumably need to be recast. This is more than good enough to be going on with. There is no need for anyone to get into a PC huff about its Christian allegory. With this movie’s buoyant fun, Adamson provides something akin to the sense of humour Graham Greene said he needed in order to believe. Although you don’t need to believe in a fairytale to find it enchanting.