by Richard von Busack
IT’S NOT a perfect film, but The Wolfman is a loving remake, done by people who understood the romance, pathos and torment of Curt Siodmak’s original 1941 film. This new animal has speed on his side, and there’s more viscera flying around: the aftermath of the rampages looking like closing time at a Guadalajara meat market.
Those of us who prefer surface and mood get served with atmosphere. The action takes place at a British manor with animal topiary outside and taxidermy inside. The monster shambles over the chimney pots over London—transforming back to a man, blood-covered and on all fours, lapping water out of the Thames.
In 1891, after the horrific death of his brother, the noted Shakespearean actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) returns home to his family’s mansion. This means a re-encounter with his estranged father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins). The town gossip has it that Lawrence’s brother was killed by a tame dancing bear owned by a band of Gypsies; when investigating on a moonlit night, Lawrence himself is nearly killed by the real culprit. The fiance of the late brother (Emily Blunt) stays to nurse Lawrence back to health And when the next moon rises—well, you know.
Probably you could hire a makeup man just to make Del Toro look less like a wolf. But the Talbot scenes suggest that Del Toro was cast for his resemblance to Lon Chaney Jr., with his clouded, thick features and his air of suffering. This Lawrence is Anglo-Indian, which explains his complexion, and the film notes that he was educated in America, to explain his accent.
The bit about Lawrence’s career as a stage actor is just a clue to the satisfyingly formidable Scotland Yard detective (Hugo Weaving) brought in to investigate. Anyone who had played as many parts as Lawrence had could be leading a double life.
Hopkins’ evil here is so rich that they should sell it by the ounce. He is a throwback to the day when actors could convince us of madness not by their actions but by the inflections of their lines. In the Maria Ouspenskaya part, Geraldine Chaplin has a few scenes full of great pity. And there’s also a lively, gross counterpoint: note the way she cuts the thread when sewing up the mangled Lawrence.
The Wolfman is a famously troubled film, and the signs of recutting show. It slams into action with a beginning when it should have lured one in slowly. What director Joe Johnston and makeup artist Rick Baker have done is apparent, though: we see the human under the fur. The romance isn’t stinted, either: when Blunt is stretched out pale, bathed in moon dust, or when we take in the directorial riskiness of a tight close-up that fills the screen from side to side with Blunt’s miraculously well-shaped mouth (a shot as deft as a Man Ray photograph).
The Wolfman keeps serving up tasty bits: Roger Frost as a small-town reverend giving a hellfire sermon on the attacks as God’s punishment. Antony Sher is suitably fiendish as a sadistic German doctor who feels he can cure Talbot by exposing him to the full moon. The film’s best moments aren’t clawings or chompings, but setups: little things, like the mad Sir John playing the piano and leaving bloody fingerprints on the keyboard.