The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

(Stephen Norrington, USA, 2003)


Over fifty years ago, the great French film critic André Bazin wrote a piece in which he hoped that the characters and stories in great works of literature would one day float free of their creators and form an enormous and autonomous universe of pure fiction. It was a postmodern fancy long before its time. What matters (Bazin heretically proposed) is not the writing style of a Balzac or a Shakespeare, but the malleable, imaginary worlds they hand over to their readers. (1)

These days, pop culture has almost entirely realised Bazin's dream. Perhaps it still registers as slightly odd that the promotional material for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen can evoke the film's remarkable cast of heroes and villains – Captain Nemo, Alan Quatermain, Jekyll and Hyde, Mina Harker, Dorian Gray – without once paying due to the likes of Jules Verne, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde or Robert Louis Stevenson. But that's when the fun of this film precisely starts – when pop mythologies start mingling with each other without heed of their original sources.

In a context of frequently dull contemporary sequels and blockbusters, this fantasy-adventure movie is a welcome surprise. Inventive and imaginative, it embraces its pop-modernist premise with gusto. Exciting and humorous right to the end, it is a real triumph for director Stephen Norrington (Blade, 1998).

Quatermain (Sean Connery) is in peaceful retirement in his beloved Africa when he is approached to be part of a special league to fight the evil force led by the mysterious Fantom. After being whisked to a private chamber in London's Albion Museum, Quatermain has to learn to get along with such proud and talented colleagues as Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), Rodney the invisible man (Tim Curran), the lustily vampiric Mina (Peta Wilson) and the perversely dashing Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend). His eventual introduction to the tempestuous Jekyll/Hyde (Jason Flemyng) is even more disconcerting.

Derived from a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill – although screenwriter Larry Cohen (Phone Booth, 2003) reportedly filed a lawsuit against Twentieth Century Fox alleging that it is rather closer to his own unfilmed project Cast of CharactersThe League of Extraordinary Gentlemen finds a neat way of displacing the problems facing the twenty-first century into those that once faced the twentieth.

The film evokes an era in which unusual weapons were transforming warfare, and when diverse nations and their cultures were beginning to forge unforseen alliances. All the changes on this global scale are mirrored in the mental and physical advancements incarnated in our somewhat reluctant super-heroes. Invisibility, blood lust, uncontrollable rage: such are the portents of our strange, new world.

This is a beautifully constructed film, in which the smallest detail functions as a set-up leading to a satisfying pay-off. David Cronenberg's regular production designer, the brilliant Carol Spier, creates a rich, baroque world of fantasy, the likes of which has not been seen on screen since The Shadow (1994). And inside all the effects and sets the characters are, for a change, truly interesting.

© Adrian Martin October 2003


1. Bazin at Work: Major essays and reviews from the forties and fifties, edited by Bert Cardullo (New York: Routledge, 1997, pp. 41-52) back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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