Big Fish (2003)

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange, Billy Crudup, Helena Bonham Carter, Alison Lohman, Steve Buscemi and Danny De Vito

Directed by: Tim Burton

Rating: 1 2 3 4 5

'Still waters run deep...'

David Essex, The River
Albert Finney as Edward Bloom and Billy Crudup as Will

Big Fish tells the story of Edward Bloom (Albert Finney/Ewan McGregor), a travelling salesman who has woven his eventful and colourful life into a rich tapestry of folkloric tales. From joining the circus to capturing top secret military plans, robbing a bank to buying a whole town, you name it, Edward Bloom has done it.

Or at least he says he has. Trouble is, his son Will (Billy Crudup) doesn't believe him. And now Edward is dying of cancer, and Will must find out once and for all who his father really is, before it's too late.

For Edward, his fantastic stories, like fairy tales of old, are a way of mythologising and thus ordering and explaining his life's experiences and ensuring that they are remembered. Will, however, despite being a journalist, believes in the plain and unadorned truth and doesn't see the necessity of embellishing (or lying, as he puts it) to make a story more appealing or entertaining. (Evidently he doesn't work for a tabloid then.)

Yet as he begins to examine the tales he's always presumed to be fabrication, he gradually comes to realise that at the heart of each extravagant fantasy lies a kernel of truth, albeit a truth that proves as elusive as the slippery fish of the title. Can Will ever hope to catch it?

Albert Finney as Tom Jones in 1963

Fantasy and fairy tale, myth and magic: yup, we're in prime Tim Burton territory here, and backed by a truly brilliant cast, he really makes the most of it. The dual casting of Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor as the old and young Edward is a stroke of genius, as McGregor is the spitting image of Finney back in his sexy Tom Jones days. With a winning smile, boundless energy and only a slightly dodgy Southern accent, McGregor is utterly engaging, as fresh and endearing as when I first saw him on screen, in Dennis Potter's Lipstick On Your Collar in 1994.

Albert Finney, likewise, gives the performance of a lifetime as Bloom, an artistic tour de force that, spookily enough, is only equalled by his brilliant portrayal of Daniel Feeld in Dennis Potter's last television screenplay, Cold Lazarus.

Jessica Lange is dignified and beautiful as Edward's wife Sandra, and, again, Alison Lohman as her younger self looks incredibly alike. The ever-reliable Steve Buscemi and Helena Bonham Carter (have either of them ever been crap in anything?) turn in trademarked eccentric performances, alongside the usual Burton roll-call of outcasts and misfits, from a gentle giant to a lonely werewolf to Siamese twins.

The twisted forest... look familiar?

Throughout the film, Burton borrows images and themes freely from his previous work, taking the best of each and weaving them artfully into the fabric of Big Fish. So we have the dark, twisted forest and prophetic witch from Sleepy Hollow, the pristine small town of Edward Scissorhands and the recurring themes of the blurring of the boundaries between fantasy and reality, the isolation of the outsider and the need to look beyond appearances to see the truth beneath.

The central theme of the film, however, is the vital importance of storytelling as a means of bestowing shape and significance to our lives and ensuring that we live on after death - a theme, of course, that is utterly pertinent to an artistic genius like Burton. The fantasy of Bloom's stories is no whimsical rhetoric, but an expression of the truth of the tale, a way of making the meaning clear and accessible.

In effect, Tim Burton is Edward Bloom, transforming everyday human emotions and attributes - love, friendship, fear, courage - into fantastic magic and winning a place in the hearts and minds of film-goers the world over in the process.

Ewan McGregor as the young Edward Bloom, in one of the loveliest moments of the film

With his exquisite gothic sensibilities and boundless imagination in which magic and the macabre are so inextricably entwined, his unerring ability to stir the soul and conjure up a real sense of beauty and mystery, Burton is one of the most innovative and creative directors around, and Big Fish is a true masterpiece. Beautiful, funny, heart stoppingly romantic, magical, moving, creepy and life-affirming, it's one of the best films I've seen in a long time. I laughed, I cried, I loved it.

At the end of the film (surely one of the best endings ever committed to celluloid, or whatever films are made on these days), Edward Bloom, surrounded by a colourful company of weird and wonderful characters, can die secure in the knowledge that his spirit will live on as his tales are told to future generations. When Tim Burton finally departs for that big film canister in the sky, will he be so lucky? With Edward Scissorhands, Beetlegeuse, Jack Skelington and now Edward Bloom to see him off, I'd say it's a sure thing.

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