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21 July 2016updated 14 Sep 2021 2:52pm

Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill shine in The BFG – but the film never quite takes off

The stars of The BFG have great chemistry. What a shame, then, that they end up in boring Buckingham Palace.

By Ryan Gilbey

The comedian Paul Whitehouse does a killer impression of Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall mode: there’s lots of candlelight but no one can hear a word he’s saying. It was entirely possible that Rylance would disappear altogether in his role as a lanky ogre in The BFG, Steven Spielberg’s film of the book by Roald Dahl. Motion-capture technology often leaves the performers obscured. You have to stare long and hard at Smaug, the dragon in the Hobbit films, before you recognise its preening smile as pure Cumberbatch.

Rylance isn’t hidden in the usual mo-cap way, though. If anything, he is physically amplified. It’s as though one of those Covent Garden street artists had produced a caricature of him that had then stepped off the sheet of A2 and on to the screen. The flapping ears of this BFG (Big Friendly Giant) could be fleshy, oversized butterfly wings; his hair, grey and grimy as ocean scum, is swept back into a wave that never crashes. When he smiles, his twinkling eyes threaten to vanish into a face as lined as an unmade bed. In Rylance’s previous film with Spielberg, Bridge of Spies, he shrank quietly into the background while his charisma hummed away like a nuclear reactor. He pulls off the opposite trick here. This is a physically colossal performance pieced together from shrugs and twitches, half-smiles and blow-me-down snorts. Even when he’s in your face, he is never, well, in your face.

The BFG finds an ally in Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) once she realises that he isn’t going to have her for supper. It’s touch-and-go when the 11-year-old finds herself standing in his frying pan and staring aghast at her own reflection in a meat cleaver. Sophie has been plucked from her bed in an orphanage after catching sight of him while peering out of her window at 3am. With a few nimble steps over motorways, fields and coastal rocks, he takes her back to his cave so that she doesn’t spill the beans. “You’d be telling the whole wonky world on the telly-telly bunkum box and the radio squeaker,” he reasons in his sing-song vocabulary.

Far from being a monster, the BFG is being terrorised. All he wants is to do his job, roaming the misty-floored forests, catching dreams as they drip on to the leaves beneath the aurora borealis. (It’s as though the sky is melting.) But the BFG is being bullied by his fellow giants. “Don’t take it,” Sophie implores him. “Do something!”

There are obvious similarities with Spielberg’s masterpiece ET the Extra-Terrestrial (released in 1982, the same year as Dahl’s book was published), and not only because they share a screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, who died last year. Both stories concern lonely children who come to the aid of a creature that popular mythology has taught them to fear. In each instance, the impotence of the child in an adult world is overturned dramatically: Elliott helps ET get home and Sophie defends the BFG.

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Barnhill, a newcomer to acting, is a peppery wee hero. In nightdress and spectacles, with a northern lilt and a mood of bemused indignation, she’s like a cross between Tin­kerbell and Alan Bennett.

Her chemistry with Rylance almost allows the movie to soar. Yet whereas ET had scope and breadth, with resonances that reached into the universe, The BFG exhibits a parochial deference to earthly power that undercuts any attempts to make Sophie the master of her own destiny. The story’s imagination has limits and they end at Buckingham Palace, where Sophie goes, in the second half, to enlist the help of Elizabeth II (Penelope Wilton).

There’s something obsequious about the turn the film takes here. Although there is some superficial irreverence to the sight of the Queen knocking back the giant’s favourite tipple (the bubbles in the drink fall instead of rising, producing farts rather than burps), The BFG succumbs to a fetishisation of luxury, the camera gawping in awe at the abundance of food and finery. It’s almost as if it has forsaken the rich, repulsive gloop of the early scenes. Disappointingly, the royal banquet has proved preferable to the snozzcumber, that warty, marrow-like vegetable in which Sophie hides, before emerging slick with goo, feet-first like a breech birth.

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This article appears in the 20 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt