Starring: Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Kyle Catlett
Genre: Adventure/ Drama
10 year old T.S. (Catlett) lives an isolated life on a ranch in Montana; despite his young years he is obsessed with science and gets a phone call one day from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington saying that his perpetual motion wheel invention has earned him the prestigious Baird prize. Obviously thinking him to be an adult, they invite T.S. to make a speech and collect his award at a reception in his honour. Leaving without telling his family, T.S. jumps on a cargo train and embarks on the adventure of a lifetime across America to Washington D.C.
When a film has “A Journey in 3D by Jean-Pierre Jeunet” as its tagline, the visuals being the main focus of the marketing tells you pretty much all you need to know about the French auteur’s second English language feature. Though I regard Amélie as overrated tripe, with that and his other directorial efforts there is no denying that Jeunet has a certain eye for unique visual flair. Well, T.S. Spivet is his first foray into 3D and while most 3D films are just a gimmick to make money, it is obvious Jeunet has put a lot of effort into creating a beautifully realised visual world. With pop out maps and the visual realisations of the scientific graphs that T.S. draws in his mind the film is indeed a visual wonder. Likewise Jeunet’s vision of rural Montana is alive with fields that are unbelievably green, barns that are bright red and skies a deep and rich perfect blue. It is a film that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible with its truly immersive visuals.
However films also tend to have things like a ‘story’ and a ‘narrative’, and with all his focus on the visuals Jeunet (who also co-wrote the script apparently) seems to have no regard whatsoever for such trivial things. In terms of how it tells its story, T.S. Spivet truly is all over the place with time going backwards and forwards constantly with no rhythm, making the viewing experience far more of an effort than it should be. The visuals may be very immersive, but the actual story is often anything but. Things do settle down and become slightly more coherent and linear in the film’s final third, but the film’s tendency to go for the ridiculous and bizarre undermines the intended visual impact of final developments of the (sort of) plot. There is an uncomfortable balance between the intended farcical hilarity of the plot and the intended emotion of the background story of T.S., and it is an uncomfortable balancing act that seems to point out that Jeunet doesn’t really know what kind of film he is making. Then as I said before, as long as there is some kind of graph popping out of the screen, he isn’t too bothered. It is just a shame the audience is.
Thankfully the excellent performances elevate the film’s slightly half hearted attempts at emotion, often being the film’s saving grace when Jeunet can’t have something flying out of the screen at us. As T.S. Kyle Catlett is a revelation; injecting the perfect combination of well intentioned naivety and tragic loneliness from not fitting in making us truly believe in him with every line he delivers, it is hard not to be moved when T.S. talks about the tragic story of his brother, but credit for that goes solely to Catlett. Likewise the cast playing his family give low key, but emotionally involving performances. Helena Bonham Carter gives a very restrained performance by her standards, but her and Callum Keith Rennie’s understated but powerful performances as the parents of T.S. also help to elevate Jeunet’s seeming inability at coherent storytelling. Judy Davis is also very funny as the slightly selfish woman in charge of Smithsonian Institute, but her character adds very little and her performance is slightly wasted.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet truly embraces the fact film is a visual medium by focussing solely on that fact with very little care for anything else. The 3D visuals may be wonderful and often very immersive, but a lack of knowing what kind of film it truly is and a less than coherent narrative structure make for an entertaining but equally frustrating film. Though in the leading role Kyle Catlett is revelation; often single handily elevating the film’s lack of emotional substance.