INKHEART is a dreary film about a clever idea. Director Iain Softely has dulled the edges of this tale of books that come to life a little too literally and the result is a leaden trudge through badly rendered character development and performances that are as dull as the ci-mentioned edges. The one exception is Helen Mirren as an eccentric bibliophile. Tart of tongue, regal of bearing, and exhibiting the ability to wear a turban without irony, even she falls victim to the labored third act that has her character, like the film, flailing.
It all begins when Mortimer (Brenden Fraser) discovers too late that he is a silvertongue. That is, when he reads aloud, the things he reads leave the page and take up residence in this world. Little Red Riding Hood’s signature apparel drifts lazily onto a clothesline, which is all well and good, but later when he reads the eponymous novel, a story set in medieval time and full of characters who are weak, evil, or both, not to mention that nasty supernatural being, The Shadow (no relation to Lamont Cranston), something unfortunate happens. Several characters escape, and the reverse happens to Mortimer’s wife, Resa (Sienna Guillory), who is trapped in a novel that is out of print, a problem because Mortimer has lost the copy that caused all the woe. It takes nine years, but in his role as an itinerant mender of old books, he tracks the novel down in one of those ravishingly adorable antiquarian bookstores that are inevitably found in quaint Alpine villages, and just as he does, one of the characters, Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) appears, desperate to be read back into the book and his family. So desperate, in fact, that when Mortimer refuses to help him, he turns to the novel’s archfiend, Capricorn (Andy Serkis), who also escaped nine years before, to help him. Dustfinger isn’t so much evil as he is not very bright. His appearance, though, forces Mortimer to explain to his 13-year-old daughter, Meggie (Eliza Bennett) just what it was that happened to her mother.
Also not very bright is the way the film thuds across the screen. Leaving aside the perfectly splendid mansion, bursting with exquisite books in which Mirren’s character lives, one that would make any lover of antiquarian books drool with delight, even with flying monkeys, a minotaur, and the horned ferret that is obviously light-years ahead of his companion, Dustfinger, there is nothing that resembles fun anywhere. No sense of emotional involvement by anyone on screen, and certainly no breathtaking and/or lurking sense of doom. Not that there isn’t a surfeit of imagination, such as characters half-read out of books who carry on them the printing of their native tomes. Action sequences are played out in what looks like a slow motion rehearsal, and Capricorn is about as menacing as Toto, who makes a cameo appearance. Fraser is sad-eyed and desultory throughout, while Jim Broadbent as Inkheart’s author is all but somnambulant behind his bottle-glass glasses. Bettany skulks nicely, and makes Dustfinger deeper than his IQ would suggest. He also handles Dustfinger’s affinity for fire and fire-breathing with aplomb. Alas, the script leaves his character as muddled as the dim lighting and art design.
INKHEART posits that the written word is very powerful and should be used with care. It’s an admonition that the adapters of that novel failed to heed.