Sam Neill is magic in fantasy mash-up that leans on Harry Potter


(PG) 115 minutes

With its magic and wizardry and people walking through walls, this might seem like a derivative of Harry Potter, but that would be a disservice to the author. British lawyer Tom Holt has been hobnobbing with goblins for almost 40 years. He published his first fantasy novel in 1987, 10 years before H. Potter arrived. His work rate is astonishing – sometimes two books a year – many of them riffing on characters from classic stories or mythology, with added political satire.

Dennis Tanner (Sam Neill) and Paul Carpenter (Patrick Gibson) in JW Wells & Co’s back office in The Portable Door.

Holt’s 2003 novel took its cue from The Sorcerer, an 1887 comic opera by WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Gilbert’s story deployed an old English firm of “family sorcerers” called JW Wells and Co. Tom Holt took up the firm name for The Portable Door, the story of two bright young interns who enter this same firm, not knowing there is magic involved. There are now six other books in this series.

How this came to be an Australian film with an Australian director (Jeffrey Walker) and a largely Australasian cast, is another mystery, but less important. The fantasy genre, more than most, is portable. The film opens with aerial shots of London to establish the location, but I’m guessing most of the sets were on the Gold Coast. The Jim Henson Company collaborated on the project, which attracted some Australian government funding, triggered by COVID.

Countess Judy (Miranda Otto) and Sophie Pettingel (Sophie Wilde) walking together through a tunnel in London.

All in all, it’s a bit of a curate’s egg – good in parts. Sam Neill and Christoph Waltz bring fine comic energy to the spectacular design, but the story bends itself in knots trying to be inventive. It ends up feeling a bit like a lost episode of Dr Who – with pretty young things running around intricate sets, pursued by ghouls and warty-faced goblins. The script, by Leon Ford, is packed with ideas, all competing for attention. There is action and mayhem, but too little dramatic tension.

Irish actor Patrick Gibson plays Paul Carpenter, an under-achiever in need of a job. He’s drawn into the firm of JW Wells by accident, knowing precisely nothing about what it does – save that it has been doing it for a long time. Sophie Petingell (Sophie Wilde), another intern, joins Paul in cracking the mystery of a lost “portable door”, which the company’s mercurial CEO Humphrey Wells (Waltz) will do anything to find. Neill steals most of his scenes as Waltz’s sarcastic and caustic deputy, Mr Tanner. Neill sweeps through the movie with arms akimbo and head tilted at an odd angle. He brings a sort of mad pantomime glee to the role, suspended between hero and villain. Miranda Otto, Jessica de Gouw and Rachel House frock up as Wellsian witches and wizards – each looking like they might work nights in a drag show.

This may be the world’s first science fantasy movie about data harvesting. JW Wells is engaged in gathering vast amounts of personal data from citizens in order to take control of our lives and make us buy stuff. Sound familiar?

The Portable Door is in cinemas from March 23 and streaming on Stan, which is owned by Nine, the publisher of this masthead, from April 7.

Stan is owned by Nine, the publisher of this masthead.

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