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Originally published Friday, March 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Fantasy takes flight as film enters Darger's world

"What the old janitor did in this room, no one knew," says the little-girl narrator (child actress Dakota Fanning, with her usual eerie...

Seattle Times movie critic

"What the old janitor did in this room, no one knew," says the little-girl narrator (child actress Dakota Fanning, with her usual eerie poise) in the opening moments of Jessica Yu's haunting documentary "In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mysterious Life and Art of Henry Darger." The camera pans across a cluttered, quiet room, piled with books and papers, all faded in a variety of weathered browns — sepia, tobacco, dun.

Darger died in a poorhouse in 1973, at 81, a reclusive janitor known only to a handful of neighbors. When his landlords went to clear out his rented room, they made an astonishing discovery: hundreds of paintings and thousands of pages of an epic novel, both documenting the rich, strange fantasy world in which Darger lived.

Movie review3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mysterious Life and Art of Henry Darger," a documentary written and directed by Jessica Yu. 82 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Harvard Exit.

Yu (who previously directed the Oscar-winning short documentary "Breathing Lessons," about the life and work of journalist and poet Mark O'Brien) finds just the right quiet tone for telling this story of a man nobody knew, eschewing interpretation and analysis to focus instead on Darger's own stilted but vivid prose, and on the simple words of the few people with memories of him. In the real world, Darger was a cipher: His neighbors, interviewed for the film, can't seem to agree on what he was like. In a life of poverty and menial work, he left little mark outside the apartment; only three photographs of him exist. "Something happened in his life that turned him off from the world," says his former landlady, Kiyoko Lerner.

Like the Brontë siblings, who famously chronicled two imaginary kingdoms from their isolated home on the Yorkshire moors, Darger created a unique and meticulously detailed world. His book, "In the Realms of the Unreal" (his own handwriting, under his name, identifies himself as "the author of thrilling story"), documents a holy war led by the Vivian girls, seven saintly sisters who lead an army of children in battle against the evil Glandelinian army. The little girls, innocent and often naked (drawn with male sexual organs — it's not clear if the childlike Darger knew the difference between boys and girls), are models of bravery and virtue; the child-hating army that attacks them are pure evil.

Jessica Yu, writer and director of a documentary on artist and author Henry Darger

The images, painted in long watercolor panels on cheap butcher paper (some more than 10 feet long), fascinate. Some are violent and disturbing; others dreamily beautiful, such as a child with colorful butterfly wings. Yu and her crew have added subtle animation to the paintings; wings gently flutter, heads nod. It's a lovely way of making the pictures a little more real for us — just as they were for Darger. Alone in his dark apartment, he left his mundane existence behind, creating an alternative universe that he had no need to share, turning isolation into company.

"I can't imagine," says Lerner, who kept his room undisturbed until 2000, "anyone having a richer [inner] life than he had."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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