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Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009

The Telltale Heart

Brendan Fraser’s Silvertongue

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The imaginary world of books, those labyrinths of the printed page, comes dangerously to life in Inkheart. A best-selling young-adult novel by German author Cornelia Funke, Inkheart concerns a "silvertongue" who possesses the rare, wild gift of conjuring the characters and situations of books into the physical world.

In the film adaptation by director Iain Softley (The Wingsof the Dove), Brendan Fraser plays Mo, a silvertongue unaware of his power until the night he read aloud from a novel called Inkheart to his wife and daughter. Out from the pages sprang a desperate band of black-clad criminals led by the shaven-headed Capricorn, a smirking sociopath who would have felt at home in A Clockwork Orange. Loosed on the world, they gain possession of Mo's wife. For many years Mo searches the antiquarian bookshops of Europe, through dim aisles crowded with mystery, for a copy of Inkheart in the belief that the rare book will lead him to his wife. His daughter has grown into a teenager, unaware of what happened on that night long ago, unsuspecting that she has inherited her father's gift.

Mo is pursued by another Inkheart character with his own agenda, a fire-starter called Dustfinger (accompanied by Gwin, his intelligent pet weasel). Together with one of Ali Baba's 40 thieves, conjured up through a reading of Arabian Nights, they seek help from the reclusive author of Inkheart. But the writer learns to his dismay that his characters have assumed lives of their own, free now to thumb their noses at their creator. Can the author regain control over his errant universe?

Unlike the handlers of Harry Potter, Softley was not concerned with transcribing the details of the book to the screen. And yet he has called forth a marvelous movie for older children, smartly conceived, flecked with dark humor and thankfully free of sentimentality. Aside from the wooden and bemused Fraser, the cast is excellent, including Helen Mirren as Mo's imperious aunt, a bibliophile who prefers stories that have the good sense to stay on the page. The computer-generated special effects are handled with sly taste, with the more fabulous monsters kept in shadows until the climax. Inkheart is a film that honors the spellbinding magic, whether for good or bad, of the printed word.