The Film, Hollow; the Audience, SleepyBy Vladimir Zelevinsky
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker
Based on the story by Washington Irving
With Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Christopher Walken, Lisa Marie
Money, it seems, can buy anything in Hollywood -- with one exception. One would presume that a big-budget film like Sleepy Hollow, spending extraordinary amounts of money on huge lavish sets, special effects, astounding cinematography, etc., would also acquire a decent screenplay. No such luck.
But it’s not that they didn’t try: the original scribe for Sleepy Hollow was Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven. Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) did an uncredited but reportedly substantial script rewrite. The resulting screenplay, however, really doesn’t work: it is mediocre at best, and, combined with the rest of the film, it makes for one strange viewing experience.
There’s really no good way to adapt Washington Irving semi-spooky tale into a full-length movie. The screenwriters took the story’s main elements and scattered them in the first half of their adaptation. There’s indeed a bookish guy named Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), who initially doesn’t believe into the existence of the hideous Headless Horsemen who haunts the Halloweenish hamlet of Sleepy Hollow. There’s beautiful Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), who catches Ichabod’s eye. There’s square-jawed Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien, in a thankfully small role), who isn’t terribly thrilled at the sight of Ichabod and Katrina together.
So far, so good; the overall story, however, is a far cry from Irving’s tale, the main difference being that Crane in the film is the hero. Here, he’s a New York constable who travels to Sleepy Hollow to find out who has been decapitating local citizens. What ensues is a whole lot of fog, huge gothic sets, lots of mediocre computer graphics, and one of the least exciting mystery storylines in recent memory.
There’s no denying the power of the visuals. The cinematography (by Emmanuel Lubezki) is nothing short of incredible, easily the best this year, capturing the world in earthy muted tones, dark gray and brown and blue, with sudden splotches of light and color (mostly red). The art direction is almost as impressive, with the whole town and the surrounding forest created in the studio.
It’s also clearly a Tim Burton film, with the sensibility being noticeably off-kilter for most of the movie. When Burton plays it funny, it works -- although one can argue that the frequently present tongue-in-cheek tone detracts from the film’s chances to be truly exciting. When he directs an action sequence, it also works: the climactic fight on a runaway carriage is exciting and thrilling, edited with incredible tempo (there are around three cuts a second, yet it’s always clear what’s going on).
But when dealing with the storyline, the direction sags. Of course, it would be hard to muster much enthusiasm when working with such a bland plot, full of tedious exposition, lame plot devices, and abundant red herrings -- but one would at least expect some measure of urgency in the proceedings. Nothing like this here; the narrative ambles along, generating very little excitement.
Having Johnny Depp on hand considerably increases the film’s enjoyment factor. Depp gives his character a rather novel twist: Crane is a mixture of action hero and frightened schoolgirl, fearlessly cutting up corpses yet yelping at the sight of a spider. It’s also a lot of fun to observe his scientific equipment, obviously cutting edge for 1799. On the other hand, the subplot about the fight between Crane’s emotion and reason feels entirely superfluous and is pretty much abandoned halfway into the movie.
The film also gets a lot of mileage out of Christina Ricci: she looks lovely, and there’s more than one instance when the film is more interesting to watch because we know that this is the same actress who played the demonic Wednesday Addams. Other than that, Ricci is wasted; she doesn’t get much to do and the love story is ridiculously unconvincing.
Sleepy Hollow, for all the talent involved, ends up feeling like every other run-of-the-mill Hollywood movie: neat visuals, poor screenplay, and the impression that the story doesn’t really matter. At least, in this case, the film does manage to be alternately funny and exciting; it’s just that this happens only in isolated moments.