Bitchery in Geisha. A splendidly intimate Narnia. 

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Dec. 9 2005 6:22 PM

Kimono Dragons

Only the bitchery clicks in Memoirs of a Geisha. Plus, a splendidly intimate Narnia. 

Small is beautiful 
Click image to expand.
Small is beautiful

Having little to add to Meghan O'Rourke's eloquent and persuasive examination of C.S. Lewis' Narnia books and the author's allegedly overriding Christianity, it falls to this resident film critic to say that The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Touchstone) has been turned into an entertaining, emotional, and surprisingly intimate movie—an epic saga of fauns and talking (Cockney) beavers and evil sorceresses and triumphal resurrections and massive, sweeping battles that nonetheless feels … small.

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I don't mean that slightingly. The Lion, the Witch, etc. begins and ends in the imagination of children experiencing a profound loss—in this case, a rain of German bombs on London, after which the four Pevensie children (Georgie Henley, Skander Keynes, William Moseley, and Anna Popplewell) are exiled (for their own protection) to the country manse of a distant relative. In the absence of a mother and a father (or of any supportive parental figure), in a universe turned upside down, the Pevensies enter a world in which—with the aid of a gravely resplendent lion, Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson)—they overcome their earthly fears and desires and fight to vanquish an evil (and vaguely Aryan-Fascist) witch (Tilda Swinton).

There's plenty of busy, Lord of the Rings-like sprawl, but it's the fleeting images that matter most. When little Lucy (Georgie Henley is the most endearing and expressive child actor of the millennium) enters the formidable wardrobe and emerges on the other side of some fur coats into a snow-covered forest, it's less the setting that captures your imagination. (This isn't one of those fancy, Tim Burton-like Expressionist dazzlers.) It's the snowflake on the little girl's eyelash. It's Lucy's wonder at this place and at the faun (James McAvoy) who befriends her, betrays her, and then—his conscience getting the best of him—helps her to escape.

As directed by Andrew Adamson, whose previous directorial credits are for movies that were computer-generated (Shrek and Shrek 2), this is a surprisingly tender and unshowy piece of work. The pacing is leisurely and the atmosphere terribly English—until the big lion-sacrifice scene, which has a touch of Mel Gibson-esque cruelty. But then it should, shouldn't it? There isn't a trace of humanity in the albino Queen Elizabeth I (or is she Star Trek'sBorg Queen?) who encases her enemies in ice and smothers the spirit of the land of Narnia with an endless winter—while simultaneously casting out Christmas. (Fascist! Liberal!)

The wrong kind of people (you know who they are) could project a lot of different messages on this fantasy-allegory—right wing, left wing, fundamentalist (anything but atheist). But, like Meghan, I prefer to leave its archetypes—well, archetypal. For kids and kids-at-heart, the best thing about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is that in spite of its horrific flourishes and occasional brutalities, it depicts a fundamentally safe and reassuring universe in which the fallen are healed and no human sin is terrible enough to go unforgiven. And while Darwinism and Christianity have been torn asunder lately by our more obnoxious elements (you know who you are), it is a vision that is profoundly adaptive ... 3:25 p.m. PST

Fasten your obi ...
Click image to expand.
Fasten your obi ...

The tale of an orphaned Japanese girl sold into a house of geishas-in-training (it features nasty-taskmaster crones and a reigning—wildly jealous—diva), Arthur Golden's bestselling novel Memoirs of a Geisha should have yielded a transporting movie: Dickens in silk kimonos. But as directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), it's barely there. Memoirs of a Geisha (Columbia) isn't completely clueless, like Alan Parker's cinematic nonevent, Angela's Ashes. But like Parker's dud it skips lightly over the surface of its rich material, more preoccupied with making pretty pictures than dipping below the surface so that you can experience the world through the eyes of its traumatized, yet increasingly savvy, heroine.

It has been something of a scandal in Asia that the principal actresses are Chinese and Malaysian, the idea being that they're better box-office in international (white) markets than Japanese women, and that, really: Who'll know the difference? And everyone speaks (rather mushy) English anyway. Why, look! It's the lovely Zhang Ziyi from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers as the grown Sayuri, who works her way up from chambermaid to be one of Japan's most renowned geishas. In this world of element-based horoscopes, Sayuri is supposed to be something of a water spirit (she has blue milky eyes), but Zhang has always struck me as a fire spirit in waifish form. Even with the trickle of water on the soundtrack, she seems miscast, and so does her sometime co-star, the earthy Michelle Yeoh, in the role of Sayuri's allegedly ethereal geisha tutor.

In Golden's book, you constantly register the irony that Sayuri's rise to power depends on her skill at appearing servile. But with its lickety-split pacing (no image lingers) and romantic John Williams score (what big-budget movie set in Asia is complete without Yo-Yo Ma?), this Memoirs of a Geisha has neither overtones nor undertones. Marshall is a theater guy with a taste for backstage bitchery, and the only thing that clicks is the Japanese All About Eve motif—Gong Li's Hatsumomo hissing witchily at poor Sayuri. Rumor has it that Gong learned a lot of her English dialogue phonetically, but she's the one member of the cast who speaks with any musicality. That makes sense in a movie that could only have been saved by singing and dancing.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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