Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)

Based on the wildly popular book series written by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), the movie adaptation of ‘A Series Of Unfortunate Events’ draws from material from the first three books (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window) and smooshes them together to create a rough around the edges but otherwise faithful tale of misery, woe, and dark comedy fun.

After losing their parents in a mysterious fire, the precociously intelligent but serially unfortunate Baudelaire orphans are left with their ‘closest living relative’ (as in geographically closest, just down the street) – Count Olaf: an actor of questionable talent who is hell-bent on stealing the children’s inheritance fortune. Olaf is played satisfyingly by Jim Carrey, who delivers a well-balanced performance that neither gurns too much nor threatens too little. He pursues the children with scheme after scheme and poor disguise after poor disguise and, whilst the extent of his determined wickedness is not quite covered, Carrey’s fixed glint in the eye is enough to menace even through the occasional bouts of silliness.

Trying to fit three books worth of plotting into one under two-hour film was always going to be a challenge. Inevitably some of the clever linguistic subtly, sub-characters, and intricate scheming has been dropped. However, despite some of the nastiness of the books getting sacrificed, A Series Of Unfortunate Events successfully crafts its narrative into one which gets across the intrinsic unfairness of meddling adults, both those well-meaning and those with hidden agendas.

The supporting cast is hit-and-miss, given that they do not get long enough to really breathe. Billy Connelly as Dr. Montgomery Montgomery provides an extremely warm and heartening turn; Meryl Streep (Aunt Josephine) is amusing as a women terrified of everything; Timothy Spall hasn’t the room to properly portray the officious and inept Mr Poe; and Jude Law as Lemony Snicket himself gets few scenes to revel in the witty narration that is so central to proceedings. The Baudelaires themselves mostly tie in the audience well. Emily Browning as Violet is the perfect blend of insightful, vulnerable, inventive, and protective. The same can’t be said for Liam Aiken as Klaus who struggles to deliver the nuances of the proud but hurting and abandoned middle child Baudelaire. His straight-faced performance is lacking any emotive power, leaving Browning to carry the emotional heart of their predicament.

With so many elements that make the dark comedy that is ‘A Series Of Unfortunate Events’ so deliciously engaging, making a self-contained movie was always going to be tricky and this is compounded by a rather tacked on ‘and then everything was sort of okay’ ending that doesn’t feel like it can add anything apocryphal and so instead just comes to an unsatisfying stop. However, director Silberling successfully brings the best bits to the big screen and enough of the tangled tales of trickery and woe are preserved to do justice to Lemony Snicket’s weary but dutiful voice. We would advise that you look away from the ever worsening fate of the Baudelaire orphans, but your enjoyment of their expertly told unfortunate predicament is entirely of your own choosing.

 

MY VERDICT

The original tales of Lemony Snicket revelled in their ever-increasing unfortunate events and throw some pretty depressing and nasty situations at the Baudelaire children. A more faithful approach to this was delivered by the recent Netflix serialisation, obviously due to the much longer run time available. Within the confines of a standalone big screen release, the A Series Of Unfortunate Events movie shaves off some of the more unpleasant elements and provides a slightly sanitised but still enjoyably dark version. So, whilst the inherent subject matter taken on face value could be seen as unsuitable for children, in terms of actual content shown there is little to be overly concerned about. A child who is sensitive to bad things happening to people may not enjoy this movie, but for the most part things are kept darkly comical enough to be a hoot for children and parents alike.

  • Violence: 2/5 (a child is slapped across the face. There is murder ‘off camera’)
  • Emotional Distress: 3/5 (the Baudelaire children are upset by the death of their parents. Mostly this is a resigned sadness but in one scene the various emotions of grief are raw and present. They are also upset at the demise of other characters. Whenever the infant Sunny is threatened the older children are distraught – although Sunny herself is often unphased)
  • Fear Factor: 3/5 (Count Olaf is not particularly frightening although his intentions are plainly unpleasant. The leeches scene is particularly scary given that they have been described as attacking to get at the food inside people)
  • Sexual Content: 0/5
  • Bad Language: 0/5
  • Dialogue: 3/5 (many verbal threats and descriptions of death)
  • Other Notes: Deals with themes of death, death of family, betrayal of adults, greed, incompetence, indifference, intrinsic unfairness, protecting those you love, intelligence triumphing, and having to learn how to survive on your own.