Directed by Stephen Norrington. USA. 2003.

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With all the negative publicity surrounding this film (flooded sets, the hostile relationship between Norrington and star Sean Connery allegedly reaching fisticuffs) many sensed that it was a disaster in waiting.  The rumours of Connery taking over editing duties certainly evoked memories of flops such as Waterworld and The Postman.  However, while this film is certainly no masterpiece, it is a surprisingly enjoyable romp.

Based on the popular comic book, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is set in the Victorian age and features seven individuals who are teamed up in order to fight ‘The Fantom’: a cunning and highly dangerous nemesis who possesses advanced weaponry and is intent on starting the next world war.  Lead by renowned adventurer Allan Quatermain (Connery) the League must use their exceptional powers to ensure that The Fantom’s plans for world domination do not come to fruition.

The main concern arising from the film’s marketing campaign was that this would merely be a star vehicle for Connery.  The trailer and advertising certainly seemed to indicate this, with clips of Connery rasping a variety of quips suggesting a decidedly hammy, screen-hogging presence.  Thankfully, this is not the case.  Connery’s performance is a lot less OTT than expected and he effectively portrays the leader figure while still allowing the other cast members a chance to shine.  As such, the film turns out to be a true ensemble piece.

Of the rest of the cast, all the actors are well suited to their parts.  This is especially true of Tony Curran who brings charm and humour to the role of invisible man Skinner, and Peta Wilson who, as vampire Mina Harker, holds her own amongst the male cast and proves strong and independent rather than the token damsel in distress.  Top honours however, go to Stuart Townsend as the self-serving aristocrat Dorian Gray.  He is effortlessly charismatic and by far the most interesting character, exhibiting a nonchalance that marks a welcome contrast to the rest of the League.  Adding a character that was not present in the comic book was a risk but, in the case of Gray, it is a risk that has paid off.  However, the inclusion of the other new character (a grown-up Tom Sawyer) does not seem such a good move.  This is not so much a problem with the actor (Shane West), who fits the role well and plays it exactly as intended, but with the character itself.  It is obvious that Sawyer has been added for demographic reasons i.e. to appeal to a younger market and provide a character for American audiences to identify with.  This would not matter as much if the character’s presence benefited the film, but the function of Sawyer as a surrogate son figure to Quatermain is painfully transparent and contrived.  When Quatermain tutors Sawyer on his shooting technique before revealing his regrets regarding his now-deceased son, it is obvious how this particular arc is going to develop.  As Quatermain’s discipline and patience is contrasted with Sawyer’s reckless slap-shot approach, the audience knows that it is only a matter of time until the inevitable moment when the latter must put to use everything that his mentor has taught him.  Thus, a scene that was no doubt intended to be a moment of high emotion is, in reality, eye-rollingly derivative.

This is not the only predictable aspect of the film either.  When the identity of the traitor amidst the League is revealed it is not a revelation at all; it is so well signposted that the character may as well have ‘I am a traitor’ written on his/her forehead.  As it is made so obvious to the audience, it is hard to believe that the characters do not cotton on earlier, especially since they are supposed to be so ‘extraordinary’.  When we are finally shown a montage highlighting the traitor’s guilty moments it certainly does not elicit the gasps from the audience that it was intended to.  This plotline would have been more believable if it was subtler and did not underestimate the audience’s intelligence.

The other main problem with the film is the ending.  Initially, the conclusion appears surprisingly effective, opting for a dignified low-key tone.  However, rather than finish at this point, the film instead adds an obligatory (and rather ridiculous) scene that is clearly intended to pave the way for a sequel (although, given the reception this film has opened to, a sequel is unlikely to be greenlit).  This, in turn, undermines what has gone before and makes the audience feel cheated rather than uplifted by this upbeat tacked-on ending.

One of the areas where the film does succeed is in its production design, notably the Nautilus (Captain Nemo’s ship), the League’s automobile and the various locations featured throughout.  Rather than opting for a blaring rock soundtrack and Matrix-esque visuals, the film thankfully keeps to its period setting and appears gothic and elegiac.  This is spoilt slightly by the quick-fire editing, which is especially prevalent in the action sequences.  This seems to have been used in an attempt to keep the film fast-paced and exciting but it is unnecessary and, at times, confusing.  There is also the odd sub-par special effect, most notably Mr Hyde who merely appears over-weight and lumbering rather than impressive or threatening.

Still, despite the film’s various flaws, it would be unfair to call it a failure.  It may not quite live up to its potential but it is an enjoyable ride nonetheless.  The acting is generally above average, the visuals are stylish and the film is quick-paced and does not outstay its welcome.  The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen certainly isn’t going to win any awards but as far as entertainment value goes, it is surprisingly successful.

Lucinda Ireson
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