Toto The Hero – Arrow Films

Written & Directed by Jaco Van Dormeal

 Belgium/ 1991/ 91 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

homas is an unreliable narrator and swears he has been swapped at birth with his spoiled, meanspirited and irritating neighbour Alfred. Toto the Hero begins in Thomas’ future, the crisp cold darkness of a manor home the scene of a death, revenge and the payoff of a life’s turmoil and imagination-fuelled vengeance. It’s not always clear where the line of fantasy is drawn, with the mosaic of flashbacks and whimsical perspective clouding the narration but, as Thomas reflects, we realise this has always been the case. Its peculiar sense of childlike innocence and fantasy reinforces the traumatic struggles and occasionally outlandish plot while enriching the humour.

Taking its title from Toto, the imagined self Thomas wishes he could be, a detective righting the wrongs of his father’s death, the film plays out with clever laughs and catching visuals. For decades filmmakers have endeavoured to blend aspects of children’s fantasy with adult themes and humour, usually leaning heavily on one rather than incorporating them together. Toto the Hero is an abnormally rare example of infusing two story-telling methods sublimely, building on the foundations laid by the other.

Walther van den Ende’s cinematography plays expertly into the daydream angle, offering up heaps of enjoyable shots as the film plays into Thomas’ imagination. Whether this is reducing the colour scale as the film-noir Toto, or the hyper-realist colours of Belgian suburbia with the dancing tulips, the film’s editing allows a seamless cause and effect narrative, gradually switching between the catalyst of Thomas’ frustrations and repercussions. There’s also a dose of adroitness as the characters age, where scenes tend to have quicker edits, while the never-ending days of youth are served with complimentary lengthier shots.

Despite these leanings into rich colours, Toto the Hero refreshingly abstains from sentiment. Relationships can be pure and loving, but the grief, loss and trauma strikingly never stray into melodrama. Michel Bouquet’s sombre voice throughout means that Thomas’ emotional pitch never crescendos; nothing is played for the sake of drama. His desire for revenge on childhood nemesis Alfred never reaches a pitch of ridicule, rather a bitter pang which allows the two to remain speaking, even when vying for the affection of their mutual crush Alice.

Standing head-and-shoulders ahead of her adult peers, Sandrine Blancke’s short time as Alice, Thomas’ possible-sister-love-interest is, for a child performer, exceptional. The incestual nature of Alice and Thomas’ relationship, even if he may not be her brother, is off-putting, and there’s a disturbing focus on Alice’s sexuality as a minor. This does, however, play into the hands of Thomas’ fantasy, and is handled with a deal of delicacy and authenticity which staves off ill-intent. Blancke’s powerful presence balances Thomas Godet’s impetuous, imaginative but shy Thomas as a child.

Nowhere is the writing tauter than in the conclusion, the final clutch Thomas takes to turn the tables and reclaim his ‘stolen’ life. From murder plot to acceptance, the disjointed beginning finds meaning in a tightly stitched series of events which result in a tremendous payoff. But irritatingly this is Toto the Hero’s key fault – it’s too positive. There are a few too many occasions where Jaco Van Dormael’s direction is hesitant to bite down. His reputation for respectful films, which promote those with mental and physical disabilities makes for an exceptionally well-cast film, with intricate writing that both understands and values the struggles of individual characters. It just means Van Dormeal refrains from drawing blood.

Maintaining the film’s ethereal nature, Arrow Film’s Blu-ray rerelease brings an exemplary piece of Belgian cinema to fresh audiences, showcasing a rare species of film. One where the nuances of childhood revelry, make-belief and daydreaming enhance the adult comedy, ideas and repercussions.

Review originally published for The Wee Review:

Declan – The Actors Centre

Written & Performed by Alistair Hall

Directed by Alexis Gregory

Theatre needn’t be bright or comforting. Often, it is one of the few forms of brutal honesty accessible, able to tackle divisive (and often dismissive) thoughts on isolation, sexuality, fear of the outside world and often with a degree of myth thrown in for good measure. As many attempt to comprehend their isolation, Declan is an innovative piece of theatre which draws us inward to the mind of Jimbo, a boy who has an unstable relationship with his father, a non-existent one with his mother, and a seemingly dangerous one with his old friend Declan.

Created and performed by Alistair Hall, Declan boasts powerful writing, and glints of unfettered ambition, but struggles to piece it all together. What Hall’s writing delivers, in blood-dripping droves, is an atmosphere, in particular a neo-gothic sense of contemporary horror. Leaning a touch heavily on the vampire parables, a portion of the split-nature of Hall’s performance of Jimbo has stark flickers of Stoker’s Renfield. A sinful ignition, which grows over-time, Hall’s production catches a few too many reflections of Renfield’s incarceration, a parallel which wouldn’t merit comment had Declan not drawn heavily on the vampire mythos and empowerment of the flesh and blood.

At its most potent, Declan emboldens Hall’s language, particularly in the grotesque obsession with the visceral, bodily and disturbed. The tone of speech, word-choice and twisted weaving of imagery throughout the narrative provide an intensely tangible assault on the senses, particularly adept at flaring the nostrils. Here is Declan’s strength, one it should have played into more, deeper, richer use of imagery rather than the breakneck flickering between ‘ghosts’ or time-scales. It confuses any of the purposes which were building, and just as an investment is made in a particular scene or delivery, it’s dashed to the side by Hall’s chaotic delivery.

This chaos ripples into reality, so much so the audience will spend plenty of time questions the motivations and truths behind Jimbo’s words. It seems safe to disregard much of his tales, stripping away the fictional monsters, the vampires, and ghosts, to concentrate on the real atrocities of suicide and homophobia. The questioning of our reality due to solitude, to a disconnection from the outside world is viable in its contemporary place, above all else, it’s a clever delivery mechanism deployed by Hall.

Trouble is this blurring of reality, in an attempt to conjure manifestations of psychological insecurity, potential abuse and sensory depictions, muddies its intentions. There’s an undeniable ability in Hall’s crafting of Declan, with award-winning Layke Anderson’s video editing toyed with just enough to heighten the ethereal atmosphere, without resorting to shlock horror. Flickers of lights, the scattered remains of Jimbo’s psyche strewn across the cell-like room, all communicate volumes to the audience. As a piece of cinema, as much as a piece of theatre, the editing process, and the videography Anderson achieves, all structured well by Alexis Gregory’s direction, makes for a surprisingly intimate production.

As a short piece, at just over twenty-five minutes, Declan condenses a hefty weight of imagery and language into a cell which it is bursting from. There’s the feeling of a jigsaw which has been turned out, but a few pieces are missing, and not even the writer knows where they lurk. Perhaps this is an intended note, that we are never given the full puzzle, that our obsessions detract from a healthy sense of self, but Declan bogs itself in such intensive, convoluted imagery and metaphor that it numbs impressions which may have been left.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub:

Declan is available to stream here until June 28th:

The Adventures of Curious Ganz – Assembly Roxy

Directed by Sarah Wright

Words by Anna Maria Murphy

Puppetry offers a form to the imagination that few other mediums can capture. Benefiting from a physical dimension, it takes an edge over animation, cinema and lighting effects. It makes our dreams, our hopes, and even our nightmares, significantly tangible. The Adventures of Curious Ganz told with miniatures, string and rod puppets is an enchanting piece which delves into history, alchemy and the stars.

Curiosity is, like its sibling necessity, a catalyst of science, imagination and adventure. Glossing over the colonial aspects of exploration, Curious Ganz tells the tale of a small, nosy man who is never without his trusty magnifying glass. Setting out on the open ocean, or the deepest mines of Peru in search of something, anything, Ganz encounters a familiar royal who herself finds interest in the world beyond the River Thames.

From Queen Lizzy the First to the Duffers, and even a disgustingly adorable caterpillar, Sarah Wright’s lead set and puppet design from a team consisting of Lyndie Wright, Liz Walker, Alice King, Mae Voogd, Katie Williams & Luke Wood are exceptional. Basing their production on the life of copper smelter Joachim Gans, the ability to shift us from the universe’s beginning to the stench of old London seamlessly is a testament of their profession. Liz Walker, Avye Leventis/Nix Wood and Ailsa Dalling’s conduct a wealth of tales from their fingertips, straying from drama to comedy and into touching moments with ease.

Naturally, it wouldn’t be children’s theatre without some countermanding fear to balance the sickeningly charming characters. In his bid to stifle science and maintain his authority in the Queen’s court, the Prime Minister may have a small role but it showcases the inventiveness of the Little Angel Theatre. Defiant that the world is flat, the puppet of the Prime Minister looms over model earth, with a tiny boat heading towards the edge. As he warns of sea monsters, leviathans and beasts, enormous puppet creatures sway back and forth around him. Sharply crafting him, his features strike imposing shadows on the cold stone of the Assembly theatre.That’s the thing about ‘kid’s shows, in an audience with one child -there are many more adults- it’s evidence of our appetite for shows such as Curious Ganz.

Unfortunately, there is some incoherence with the narrative, which causes the imagination to come off the reigns. It leads to the climax feeling rushed, bombastically throwing a great deal at the audience, and when contrasted with the slow, simple opener as the universe evolves, seems heavy on visuals, and light on reserved storytelling.

Understandably, this eruption of creativity comes from a place of enthusiasm. Which is what you’ll find heaping’s off throughout Curious Ganz, passionate storytelling which stumbles on its coattails to showcase as much delightful puppetry as possible in the fifty-minute runtime. Offering a revised insight into historical discovery, with delightful puppets of all shapes and sizes, Little Angel Theatre and Silent Ride are alchemists of storytelling, spinning wood, plastic and string into gold.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: