How does a father broach the subject of mortality with their son? This quandary lies at the heart of The Place of No Words, a personal love letter from writer-editor-director Mark Webber to his family, Teresa and Bodhi Palmer. With Mark suffering through a terminal illness, he is taken on an adventure by his son, Bodhi, through a fantasy Scandinavian realm, a journey which sees them crossing paths with fairies, witches, humanoid dogs, and Doctor Who-like robots. It’s a story akin to fantasy efforts like A Monster Calls and I Kill Giants, aiming for the emotional gut punches to sell their story, but with such a minimal plot to latch onto, the emotional aspect of the The Place of No Words is relied upon too heavily to have the necessary impact.
Webber manages to separate the real and fantasy worlds in which the film exists by more than just its visuals. Certainly, the smash cut from father-and-son lying on a bed together to the two of them in Viking attire on a wooden rowboat fighting against the current is done to immediately inform the audience of the film’s two distinct locales, but Webber does a tidy job behind the camera to sell it even further. The fantasy realm, for instance, has a relatively steady camera at work, following its characters from the middle distance, tracking their journey across a near abandoned yet gorgeous mountainous and woodland environments in a relatively matter of fact manner. In the real world, it embodies a more dream-like aesthetic, slow-motion shots of a beaming Bodhi or the handheld but fluid movements through family parties present Mark as a dreamer himself, longing to continue in this idyllic life he has created for himself and his family while fighting the turmoil of his illness. It works terrifically for the characters, both providing a sense of Mark himself, while also convincing you that his adoring son, Bodhi, would have the vivid imagination that he does.
The fantasy realm gets much more play here than the real world does; Mark would much rather spend time in his child’s mind than his hospital bed. It’s here that the film works best, subverting any sense of fantasy expectations. It appears, at first, as a father indulging his young child, following his every whim with disregard for that silly thing we call logic. We return time and time again as Mark shovels coal into Bodhi’s train of thought until it goes off the rails; Mark is so ill-prepared to leave Bodhi’s fantasy that anything and everything goes. Fairies and witches feel at home in this world, but even later, when they engage in a laser gun shoot-out against a pair of robots, it’s all in service of his escapism. This father and son fantasy adventure is far more in aid of the father than it is the son.
Of course, the metaphor for this fantasy world is the small matter of life and death. The childish inflection on it is wonderfully handled by our two leads, no doubt the fact they are real-life father and son only adds an extra layer of touching realism to their interaction. Bodhi is wonderful throughout, his child-like wonder feeling effortlessly real; at moments when Bodhi is explaining what’s happening next in his fantasy, his feverish excitement is palpable as he delivers wide eyed rambles despite his words struggling to keep up with the speed of his imagination. Even in the more structured scenes, the existential discussions, Bodhi remains wholly believable, muttering his discontent towards life itself when he discovers that death is part of it. A miraculous performance from a 5-year-old.
Despite their touching interactions, as we reach the conclusion, you can’t help but feel The Place of No Words needs to go up a notch or two and deliver its final blow. Despite knowing exactly what the film is leading towards, when the moment arrives, it doesn’t quite have the same impact as some of their earlier interactions. The final act sees the film step back into the real world, in so doing loses that sense of wonder that had preceded it. While this is no doubt an intentional play – reality is far less forgiving than fantasy after all – a dramatic, climactic sequence in the fantasy world to sell the moment would not have gone amiss. A Monster Calls feels like a very evident inspiration for Webber’s film, but while the former left me a blubbering mess in a Loughborough multiplex, the latter left me relatively numb. For all the great groundwork laid by The Place of No Words up to this point, its denouement doesn’t quite do it all justice.
At times, The Place of No Words is remarkable, anchored by a wonderful performance from Bodhi Palmer, elevated by a believable script from his father, Mark. It’s a real shame its final act doesn’t live up to the same heights; something special was brewing. Still, the journey through this wild, illogical imagination is delightfully charming, and sure to tug at even the stiffest of heart strings.
Dazzler Media presents The Place of No Words on DVD & Digital from 5th July, 2021