Guillermo del Toro's audacious fable is almost two movies in one, but its handling is so assured that the compound of fairy tale and realism becomes all of a piece. Set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (as was Del Toro's ghost story, The Devil's Backbone), it concerns a young girl Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who arrives with her pregnant mother in a remote outpost to live with her stepfather Vidal (Sergi López), a brutal captain in Franco's Civil Guard. While the soldiers scour the forest for republican insurgents, Ofelia retreats into her books and a subterranean world in which a gravel-voiced faun proclaims her a princess and invites her to perform three tasks. Del Toro's forthright references to classic children's fantasy - the pinafore Ofelia wears echoes that of Alice in Wonderland, there's a cricket out of Pinocchio - are allied to a Gothic sense of nightmare, vividly represented by a stalking bogeyman with eyes in his palms.
Despite its fairies and magic doorways, this would be too scary for children - it might be too scary for some adults - since the horror resides not just in a child's imaginings but in the real world where Vidal's sadistic regime terrorises the locals: innocent farmers are shot, captured rebels are tortured, and even Ofelia's mother is shadowed by death. The film conjures an extraordinary tension in the final reel as a gruelling game of cat-and-mouse is entrained between the captain and his household, its outcome uncertain until the very last minutes. Just as his compatriot Pedro Almodóvar has blurred the line between romance and tragedy, Del Toro has made a magnificent alchemy of fantasy, horror and history that is at once outlandish and utterly plausible.Reuse content