THE BROTHERS GRIMM
Dir: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Lena Headey
Out: 4th November 2005
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Early 19th century Germany: Brothers Will (Damon) and Jake (Ledger) Grimm make money by conning rural communities with their fake hauntings. Rumbled, the ruling French authorities force them to investigate a cursed local village, whose supernatural goings-on seem far more convincing – and deadly – than their own…
Terry Gilliam’s directing career, let alone his inventive, inspirational films, is a series of weird and wonderful tales in its own right; some enchanting, some cautionary, most somewhere in-between. He probably wouldn’t – or couldn’t - have it any other way. Maverick filmmakers don’t want a quiet life; they follow up an abandoned debacle like Don Quixote with a Miramax / Dimension collaboration on an epic, effects-driven, period fantasy film. My, Harvey, what big scissorhands you’ve got…
Sure enough, The Brothers Grimm’s history is another fraught fairy tale, arriving some eighteen months behind schedule after a public falling out between Gilliam’s Cinderella, depicted, as ever, as a vulnerable, misunderstood innocent at the mercy of capricious Ugly Sisters, here, infamous cinematic ogres the Brothers Weinstein. Protesting their power plays – firing his cinematographer, nixing his choice of Samantha Morton as female lead and, er, Matt Damon’s prosthetic nose – Gilliam took his ball and decided not to play (making another film, Tideland, in the interim), before eventually returning to complete post-production. The official line now is that a little ongoing friction didn’t prevent an outcome that all involved can live happily ever after with.
On first glance the match between director and subject matter seems ideal. The real Grimms – sober historians, staunch patriots - are far removed from Damon and Ledger’s sibling hucksters but it’s clearly the spirit of the tales that Gilliam and writer Ehren (The Ring) Kruger want to invoke. The Napoleonic setting, when the Age of Enlightenment’s rationality came smack up against tradition and superstition, adds a convincing backdrop to notions of belief and an acceptance in the power of imagination that Gilliam has long held dear.
Here Damon’s Will is the cocky cynic, focused on tangible rewards, while Ledger’s Jake is the typical Gilliam bashful romantic (see Brazil’s Sam Lowry or Parry in The Fisher King). When they’re commandeered by wicked French general Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce) to investigate the sinister abduction of young girls in Marbaden village, naturally Will assumes it’s rival charlatans at work, though admittedly ones with a bigger budget, while is sure Jake there’s more than meets the eye.
And how. Roll on the possessed forest trees than can rip a man in two; an evil queen (Monica Bellucci) casting spells from atop an unreachable tower. There’s a werewolf, a real-life gingerbread boy and most hauntingly of all, a horse that shoots spider webs from its mouth and can swallow a child whole. You don’t get that in Shrek.
It’s all very fertile ground for a fantasist such as Gilliam and the script cannily works in a compendium of fairy-tale and movie references. There’s an amiable knockabout quality to some of the humour and Damon and Ledger (who switched roles at their own insistence) and the gorgeous Lena Headey as plucky heroine Angelika make likeable companions.
So why does much of this Grimm tale feel as light as a 16-stone fairy? Somewhere along the way, things don’t build and sweep you up the way the best fables - or Gilliam films - do. Trying to combine a fairy tale, a scary tale and a ‘buddy’ action movie proves cumbersome and abrupt switches from comic buffoonery to genuinely ominous mythmaking falter. Pryce’s “French” accent beams direct from ‘Allo, ‘Allo and Peter Stormare’s Italian torturer is near unwatchable in his OTT panto schtick. It’s not helped by some of the ropiest CGI ever seen in a big-budget blockbuster. And, for a helmer as acclaimed as Gilliam, too many sequences are cluttered and choppily pieced together.
The charm of the conceit and the leads go a long way to compensate but it’s not unreasonable to expect more from someone with Gilliam’s track record. Surely it’s not because he’s so enamoured of maverick melodrama? At age 64, the clock’s close to striking midnight and nobody wants a real-life tale that starts, “Once upon a time there was a director who used to make great films…”
* * * (three stars)