The Book of Henry (2017)


Directed by Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World), Book of Henry is a peculiar film to say the least. It tells the story of a young boy, Henry, who has an intimidating intelligence, a savant whose abilities allow him to make a fortune on the stock market, engineer elaborate devices, manage his mother and younger brother and generally excel in anything he sets his mind to. Meanwhile, Henry's mother, played by Naomi Watts, is portrayed as juvenile and irresponsible, delegating all her chores to her gifted offspring. So far we are in standard nineties light comedy territory and this is how many early scenes in the film play, with laughs at a child wanting to be an Olympic dodgeball champion, Henry cheering up his younger sibling, and the mother playing video games rather than taking care of the family. Things are disrupted when Henry discovers that his neighbour, played by Maddie Ziegler, is being abused by her step-father, the police chief. After calling for help from the school principle and being rebuffed he decides to take matters into his own hands. At this point you may feel as though the floor is giving out beneath your feet, the mild comedy drama about a bright young child has suddenly turned into a police procedural. Well, things are about to start descending rather more rapidly into the realm of the surreal. Henry suddenly dies of a brain tumour. He leaves behind a diary and a tape recording for his mother with detailed instructions for her on how to kill their neighbour, buy an illegal rifle, scope and silencer, and get away with everything, going so far as to plan things down to the minute with a perfect alibi.


The film draws on a lot of influences and is something of a patchwork of genres, tones and styles. It is the sudden shifts from light to dark that make is such an unusual experience. One minute you will be smiling at the quaint suburban life of this slightly dysfunctional family, the next you will be horrified at somebody witnessing their neighbour being abused (obviously only ever alluded to, but still shocking). There is heartbreaking tragedy when Henry dies, and then still jokes coming with his tape recordings to his incompetent mother. It feels as though there are two films here that are being forced to cohabit against their wills and each pulling in opposite directions. It should be said that the direction and acting are solid with everyone doing a good job of bringing the script to life, but it is such a bizarre story that it is hard to see anyone getting emotionally involved in it. There are subplots that go nowhere and the ending brings things to a close on the same queer note that everything preceding has been on, with an odd resolution to a problem that was too far fetched to provoke much sympathy to begin with.

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