Director: Anders Rønnow Klarlund
Writer: Naja Marie Aidt, Anders Rønnow Klarlund
Starring: James McAvoy, Catherine McCormack, Julian Glover, Derek Jocobi
“I end where you begin. And where you end I begin.”
Imagine if you can some twisted alternate reality where an episode of the Thunderbirds set in a Lord of Rings fantasy land was directed by Terrance Mallick, and voiced by Shakespearean thesp’s. With this in mind you are not far off from the wonderful curiosity which is Strings. Such a concept by itself should demand your attention but it doesn’t take long to realise that under the beguiling surface lies a gripping old school fantasy yarn with a lot of heart.
This strange, at times unsettling, odyssey of dark and trippy imagery begins with a particularly memorable scene which quickly establishes much of the hypnotic allure woven into almost every subtle detail on screen.
As an ageing ruler composes his last will and testimony for his son and heir, he delivers an internal monologue of foreboding doom and gloom. Through the epic gothic scenery and flashes of lightning it barely registers at first how rain is freely thundering down into what appears a normal indoors chamber. The King appears unconcerned by the trickles staining his parchment and the huge pond forming where his royal carpets should be. Are we witnessing a conquered King’s last moments in the ruins of his once mighty Empire? Or has someone forgotten to add a new coat of sealant?
It is not until later that an explanation can be pieced together as we see how the strings controlling the puppets reach miles up into the sky. The puppets have shaped their world to accommodate this strange existence, where something as simple as walls can prove to be a prison. The puppets are neither abstract substitutes for real actors, nor a stage play controlled by humans – they are in a sense real beings and their nature as living puppets forms a central part of the story. An entire mythology unfolds, with birth, life, injury, death – even spirituality and love – all explored from the perspective of a being fashioned from wood and tethered to some unseen point above the clouds.
The beguiling prologue concludes with the King stood waist deep in a pool of rain water, and cutting the string connected to the back of his head. A man with a flair for the dramatic, his lifeless body is left to permanently dangle, a Martyr crucified on his own Strings.
The endless possibilities offered by this beautifully elegant idea gives the film makers an entire way of life and mythology to explore, resulting in scenes as ingenious as they can be downright disturbing. The sight of a wooden baby being born is as magically touching as it is likely to fuel cold sweat nightmares. Watching a crudely built servant formed out of rotting wood ambling into the room with a drinks tray only to bend over backwards and form into a table for his indifferent master to drink from contains layers of darkness. And then there is of course a bit of uncomfortable puppet on puppet sex.
The adventure takes in some remarkable scenery and set pieces, achieving a Lord of the Rings style elemental palette ranging across frozen lakes, oppressive deserts, and fire wracked forests. But in its old school fantasy way the world never truly feels as epic or alive as places like Westeros, each place being a temporary background for the quest. The world feels sparsely populated and almost apocalyptic.
Beyond the mesmerising stylistic ideas which by themselves make Strings a great watch, it is pleasant to find an old school heroic plot beating in its heart. Hal, a naive young prince sets off with vague ideas of honour and revenge in his head, seeking the man responsible for his father, the Kings, death. What could have easily paled as a boringly quaint relic of old school fantasy, it is in fact wonderfully pitched, the simple questing and awakening of the hero shrouded in Shakesperean schemes of succession. There is none of the blood, tits and dragons of modern fantasy but the result is an inexplicable sense of nostalgia as if this were some long lost shard of childhood memory. The tale feels like it has existed for decades.
Though the drama relies upon ornate carved wooden puppets with no movable facial features it can be startling to see the effortless level of feeling and expression that can be achieved simply with clever camera angles, subtle movements and the excellent voice acting – more than George Lucas managed in an entire trilogy. The English dub brings a surprising wealth of voice acting talent with James McAvoy, Derek Jocobi and Catherine McCormack taking the leads.
Only during scenes of action does the idea occasionally let the film down, sword duels and large scale fights exposing the comical awkwardness of puppets bobbing up and down, bumping into each other and getting their strings in a tangle.
Had the story of Strings been written years ago it would probably be considered a classic by now. Many of the scenes feel familiar, even iconic, even though it is all new to the senses. It is a bread and butter tale of questing, sacrifice, betrayal, and villainy, but far from being a familiar cliched yarn lifted from any classic it actually delivers quite a clever adventure full of intrigue and revelations, with enough twists and surprises for the plot to stand up by itself. But ultimately this film needs to seen for the unbelievably imaginative and poetic representation of the puppets.
A true work of art and a must for fans of fantasy.