Constantly dubbed an 'adult fairy tale' at the time of its release, The Magic Toyshop blends fantasy and reality as did Angela Carter's other screenplay The Company of Wolves. It is the story of Melanie whose parents are killed in an accident. At fifteen, Melanie finds herself responsible not only for her own destiny but for that of her younger brother and sister. The three orphaned children enter a nightmare world when they are sent to live with sinister Uncle Philip - a man obsessed with the puppet world he has created in the basement of his toyshop.
Director David Wheatley and producer Steve Morrison had worked together previously on The Road to 1984 (1984), a television dramatised biography of George Orwell. Wheatley had always been interested in surrealism, his first film was about the surrealist painter Magritte, and in the magical realism of South American writers Borges, Marquez and Llosa. This interest and the source material were a good match. (It was whilst Wheatley and Morrison were in South America that they came across Angela Carter. Wheatley had read several of Carter's books and was interested in turning The Magic Toyshop into a film and approached her to write the screenplay. Carter agreed and the project was underway. She wrote the screenplay from her second novel of the same name.)
Star of the film is Tom Bell. Apparently, Bell was a child evacuee during the Second World War, and suffered unkindness in some of the homes in which he stayed. Something that must have given him and insight into the plight of the children in the script would feel, suddenly orphaned and confronted with their cruel uncle Philip. He has said that it was this aspect of the film that particularly drew him to the part. Bell is perfect for the role and it is impossible to imagine anyone else doing anything more with the part. Excluding Patricia Kerrigan as the mute wife of Philip, the rest of the cast is made up of young but talented actors and actresses. Most notable is Caroline Milmoe as Melanie. Milmoe previously worked with director Wheatley in his film Brick Is Beautiful, and when the part of the pubescent Melanie came up Wheatley instantly thought of Caroline in the role.
Melanie's sexual curiosity leads her indirectly into a Freudian nightmare of cruel uncles and macabre automatons. Angela Carter believed that all fairy tales are adult, at root being about sex, violence, death and the family. You can reduce The Magic Toyshop to the symbolic struggle of opposites - love verses hate - but in doing so you'd leave so much out. Unfolding with all the surreal dissolves of a dream, the production is hard to fault. It's true that it does occasionally have the feel of a quality BBC TV drama more than the big screen experience it was designed to be. However, the sets and costumes have a magical quality and the predominantly young cast are excellent. Angela Carter's stories are generally considered to be almost untranslatable onto film. Neil Jordan made a good job of The Company of Wolves, and The Magic Toyshop works to just as great an effect. 8/10
Rob Dyer (July 2005)
(Based on an article first published in Dark Star #3 in 1988)
The Company of Wolves
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