The Portable Door. PG. 116 minutes. Three stars
Set in old London town on the double decker route to Shoreditch, this new Australian film starts out as a playful reminder of the pitfalls of starting out in the big city. Whether you have blown in from the regions or arrived from overseas, it is one and the same, you are uncool and a bumbler until you find how to fit in.
It's a relatable start to this jaunty comic fantasy based on a popular book of the same name, the first of a six-part series, by British writer Tom Holt. A collaboration between Screen Queensland and The Jim Henson Company, it was mostly filmed on the Gold Coast.
Young Paul Carpenter (Patrick Gibson) was feeling like the proverbial fish-out-of-water on the day he landed a new job. Things weren't going well from the start. His alarm clock didn't go off, his shoelaces kept breaking, and his toaster fell apart. Everything was getting the better of him. As if that wasn't enough, he bumped into a strange bloke called Monty (an unrecognisable Damon Herriman), who was adamant that he had taught him at university. It would have been nice to make a connection, only Paul didn't remember him at all.
After chasing a dog that runs off with his scarf, Paul finds himself attending an interview for a job conducted by the board of J. W. Wells & Co. It is as though it was all meant to happen. Company chairman Humphrey Wells (Christoph Waltz), Countess Judy (Mirando Otto) and other board members interrogate the hapless job seeker who is in a duffle coat.
Paul stumbles away without any hope he could be successful, and did he really want a job there anyway? The next day, a job offer arrives.
So, what does the company do? "What we can," intones Dennis Tanner, a company manager played by a splendidly moustachioed Sam Neill, with a hint of deliciously malevolent intent.
Neill throws himself into the role of archvillain with relish and is clearly having the time of his life.
The Portable Door is also a playful reminder of the importance of knowing who you work for.
It's clear from the start that Tanner has a dim view of the new intern. He has a much better opinion of Sophie (Sophie Wilde) who was appointed the same day as Paul but to the fast-track internship program because of her potential as a seer with a fast mind.
By sheer accident, Paul demonstrates when he brushes his hand over some maps that he is a diviner. When he sees this, Wells tasks him with finding the titular portable door, concealed somewhere in the building.
Paul stumbles upon it, and in another happy accident finds out what J. W. Wells & Co is really about.
It is planning to capitalise on the fine print in all the long agreements that no one ever reads before agreeing to the permissions.
Like Facebook and other social media platforms and user apps that are harvesting people's data, J. W. Wells & Co. is planning to make a motza selling the confidential client details. Eventually it will take control of our lives and make us do stuff we don't want to do, and buy things we don't need.
It may be hard to believe such ambitions wee possible in a company with such Dickensian work practices, but vast typing pools and cavernous archival vaults are more cinematic than banks of monitors, any day.
The film looks terrific with its lush production values and good looks courtesy of Don McAlpine, one of the Australian industry's all-time great cinematographers.
Jeffrey Walker, who has directed this jaunty fantasy, is also a screen industry stalwart. He has a slightly shorter track record that includes the truly lovely Ali's Wedding.
Walker started out as a child actor in television's magical series Round the Twist.
Tom Holt's novel was adapted for screen by Leon Ford who also has form in this genre with his sweet, underrated suburban fantasy of 2010, Griff the Invisible.
The Portable Door is good in many ways but the slight conspiracy narrative lets it down. To carry a feature with a run time of close on two hours, there isn't quite enough to it. Lovely to look at and lively as it is.
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