Yesterday we took the girls to see the BFG. The Cutester was desperate to see it, and I was keen too because I loved Mark Rylance’s performance in the BBC’s Wolf Hall. I was also curious to know what a great actor can do with just his eyes and his mouth, which are seemingly the only bits of him left in the film (everything else is CGI’d, or something).
He did not disappoint. Rylance put so much soul into it, it was less like Roald Dahl and more like Shakespeare, though possibly with more farting. I don’t usually write blog posts about films (or even go to see them in the cinema much) but this one is an exception. This is not a review so much as my own personal reflections; and if you want bicycles, people-friendly streets and freedom for children, the next post might be a bit more along those lines…
Without spoiling the story too much, when we first meet the BFG he is big, threatening and unfriendly. He doesn’t smile. And it’s not the eyes or the mouth that get you first – it’s the voice. He doesn’t speak much. When he does, his voice is all husky and stuck in his throat and it genuinely sounds like he is stumbling over his words, so that Dahl’s fantastic vocabulary (you know, snozzcumber, frogspottle, crocodowndilly) is just the icing on the cake – the illusion of an inarticulate and poorly educated loner is already there before he utters them. He’s that distant rural relative in his seventies you only saw at family weddings who kept an allotment and never found small talk easy. When Sophie tells him off for getting his words muddled up he looks cut to the quick.
Then as we get to know him (he still hasn’t smiled) he starts to show this other side to him, this depth of soul. It’s all in the eyes and in the pauses. When Sophie puts on a borrowed red coat that clearly has some significance to him, he gets his emotions across to us without moving a muscle in his face. The tender way he carries her around and cares for her communicates something as well; his careful shambling actions, which become positively balletic when he’s about to blow a dream through his dream trumpet or leap improbable distances. That, and those eyes.
We discover that his work is catching dreams from a magical tree, which he bottles and labels (‘I is naked at work’, ‘I is naked at my wedding’) and blowing them into people’s bedrooms at night. This is where the almost spiritual side of his character emerges. Sophie asks why he has chosen one particular young boy to deliver a happy dream to.
He looks at her and says, ‘I hears his heart.’
And then in the most off-hand of ways he adds that he can hear her heart, and he is hearing it right now.
The smile turns up later. It takes so long to appear, that when it does, it’s like basking in sunshine. Honestly. How can a face made to look so ugly, with the outsized (moveable) ears and nose, make your insides turn to goo when it smiles? Or is it just me? His whole face crinkles up with joy and you want to turn cartwheels.
What made the biggest impact on me in the whole film was a relatively dark moment. They are catching dreams and Sophie catches a red buzzing one with a spidery number of legs. The BFG gently confiscates it – it’s a bad one – and bottles it so that it can’t escape.
‘What is it saying?’ asks Sophie.
His answer is devastating, maybe (being Mark Rylance) because of the way he delivers it, solemnly, slowly:
Look what you has done. And there be no forgiveness.
That line has haunted me ever since. (The girls tell me that it’s not in the book.) Since the red buzzy leggy thing was clearly a nightmare, I’d expected him to describe something frightening, perhaps involving one of his flesh-eating fellow giants. Not this: ‘Look what you has done. And there be no forgiveness.’
Which, when you think about it, is far worse. Sad or scary things don’t necessarily make you question your whole sense of self. But to find yourself facing up to something you have done wrong, something that can’t be undone, something that perhaps hurt someone you love, that you alone are responsible for – and to be told, ‘There be no forgiveness’ – that is the definition of despair. I think it’s something people can experience in the worst depths of depression. That, frankly, is how I imagine hell. Not really what I expected watching a PG-rated family film at the cinema.
All the films that have affected me most since I found faith in God at the age of twenty have had – to me at least – a spiritual side to them, some sort of parallel to the gospel story. This film is no exception. On the one hand there is that undercurrent of despair, that someone might stand over us and say, ‘Look What You Have Done’ with no way out. I had a persistent, nagging thought like this in my head for at least a year before I found faith. Except this thought said, ‘Look at who you are,’ and the more I looked, the less point I could see to my own existence.
Then there’s the character of the BFG. He does not wish the condemning dream on anyone, even though, as he says, ‘I does what I can’ to do good – while his cannibalistic brothers eat human beans for fun. He doesn’t judge – he just goes around delivering dreams to people who are lonely, and listens with his great ears to what their hearts are saying. Sophie learns that if she speaks to him from her bedroom in England, he will hear her in Giant Country (and respond with the wonderful crinkly-eyed heart-melting smile).
Well, how much is that like the character of Jesus (and I’m not suggesting Dahl remotely intended this)? He hears us even when we can’t see him. He listens out for us and hears right down to the depths of our hearts: the stuff that we can’t even discern for ourselves. He does not condemn. And because of his love, because of the cross, there do be forgiveness. He just doesn’t force it on us – we have to choose it. Choosing it, for me, was total liberation from those dark thoughts and the start of the most loving relationship of my life.
Anyway, the nightmare does get used to great and comic effect towards the end, you will be pleased to hear, and the sense of horror that affected me went right over the children’s heads. They loved the humour, the clever set, the corgis, the farting, the corgis farting, and the animation in the dream-mixing scene.
It was all brilliant, but Rylance was most brilliant of all. Mark Rylance, you are a legend.