Lemony Snicket's
A Series of Unfortunate Events

directed by Brad Silberling
(Dreamworks, 2004)

I've been curious about this wildly popular Lemony Snicket business for some time now, and I'm glad I finally got a chance to see the film. It does stand out as something different, with its dark atmosphere and theatrically villainous antagonist. It's largely a children's story that plays well to an adult audience. Actually, I tend to think that there may well be more in this film for adults than there is for children. The dark comedy of the story plays on a subtle level at times, and each of the Baudelaire children's small victories are more subdued than openly exciting. In fact, the older children themselves -- Klaus and Violet -- are in many ways miniature adults.

The premise of the story, with the murder of their parents, the destruction of their home and the complete upheaval their young lives are thrown into, would tend to suck the remaining childlike qualities out of any young teenagers. Clearly, though, these were always seriously minded kids: Klaus the voracious reader and Violet the creative inventor. Thanks to the subtitled translations of young Sonny's pre-articulate vocalizations, we see that she too operates on a level beyond that of mere babyhood much of the time.

The series of unfortunate events that the newly-orphaned Baudelaire children suffer here all come at the hands of Count Olaf, their first in a series of really peculiar guardians. Jim Carrey milks the role for all he's worth, but I can't help thinking that Christopher Lloyd would have been the natural choice for Olaf -- certainly, that would have saved a lot of money on makeup. Still, Carrey's Olaf easily steals every scene he appears in (and he assumes a number of guises). Olaf wants the Baudelaire fortune, which will belong to the children once they come of age, and his basic plan is to arrange for an unfortunate accident to take the lives of the little heirs-to-be and claim the money for himself. Once the children manage to convince Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), the banker, that Olaf is remarkably unfit as a guardian, he continues insinuating himself into their lives in the pursuit of his greedy endeavors.

As for those other guardians, you have an eccentric herpetologist (Billy Connolly) and an insanely timid aunt (Meryl Streep). It becomes clear to the children that there is a great mystery here, some close connection between these characters and their parents. The problem is living long enough to figure out what that mystery is. Thanks to Violet's knack for invention and Klaus's book knowledge, the kids manage to pull through every dangerous dilemma forced upon them by the insufferable Olaf.

Some surprising faces turn up in this film, including Cedric the Entertainer as a detective and Dustin Hoffman as a theatre critic. (Jude Law, of course, serves as Lemony Snicket himself, the shadowy narrator of the tale.) It looks like a good time was had by all. Liam Aiken and Emily Browning are quite engaging as the older Baudelaire children, while the tandem of Kara and Shelby Hoffman bring young Sonny to life in a surprisingly remarkable way. I can't help but mention the ending credit sequence, as well, for it runs an astonishing 12 minutes, the first five of which are augmented by darkly surreal illustrations of the kids' travails. Since the movie covers only the first three books in the series, don't look for ultimate resolution of the Baudelaire drama at the very end; there's reason to both anticipate and hope for a sequel.

by Daniel Jolley
19 November 2005

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