The Brothers Grimm Review
Whilst some admired it, others derided it ... yet most, it seems, just ignored it. Terry Gilliam's dark fantasy, The Brothers Grimm came and went without much critical or popular response. A stunted theatrical outing saw it vanish seemingly into thin air and its arrival on SD disc fared just as humdrum, which is a tremendous shame. For Gilliam's fast-paced, thrilling and, at times, actually quite scary, take on the celebrated brothers of the title and how they made their name (with an enormous amount of poetic license, you understand) is enormously entertaining and beautifully produced. In fact, I would go as far to say that this is Gilliam's best looking film to date and certainly my favourite of the maverick director's troubled output.
“Come to me, my frozen prince. Be mine ... forever.”
Folklore collectors and entrepreneurs of all things superstitious, Jake and Will Grimm are con-artists scamming a living across rural 17th Century Europe. They travel from village to village pretending to protect the townsfolk from creatures, witches and demons, and perform bogus exorcisms and the like, gaining much acclaim in the process. Their notoriety comes to the attention of nefarious officials, General Delatombe and his psychotic lieutenant Cavaldi, who arrest them and issue them with the challenge of uncovering the secret behind a spate of child disappearances occurring around a blighted and isolated village. With no choice but to accept, the Brothers Grimm undertake the job with the beady eyes of Cavaldi, who watches them every step of the way. Their beliefs are severely put to the test, however, when they encounter a real magical curse emanating from deep within in a haunted forest, a genuine witch with dangerous designs for escaping her tower dungeon and all manner of sinister and supernatural entities plaguing the area. For the first time in their lives, the two will have to face their fears and find some real courage.
As the brothers, Matt Damon (Will) and Heath Ledger (Jake) affect curious accents - cod English that tends to wander - and strut nobly right over the fine line between comedy and horror, creating a pair of wimpish heroes whose actions and dialogue fit in perfectly with the rogue period setting that Gilliam painstakingly brings to the screen. Will is the pragmatic, business-minded mouthpiece of the duo and Damon does well beneath a foppish wig to transform himself from the deadly, driven Jason Bourne to a scatter-brained chancer with more than just the mechanics of the macabre on his mind. Ledger, though, is the one who came in for a lot of flack for his portrayal of Jake, who is the dreamer and the believer of the operation. In the brief prologue, we see that it is he who is so keen to invest in the notion of fantastical worlds beyond our own that he is willing to accept some supposedly magical beans in a decidedly one-sided deal. Will can plainly see the opportunities to be exploited by the supernatural, whereas Jake truly wants to embrace it for real, and Ledger, in my opinion, does a fine job of bringing out the character's skittish, nervous excitement once things begin to occur without any strings being involved. It is also quite refreshing to see two leading men, both previously associated with much tougher roles, flouncing in fear and squealing like girls when the nasty stuff really gets started.
And, equally refreshing, is the aforementioned nastiness. With the tone that Gilliam generates from Ehren Kruger's screenplay, there is an air of the macabre permeating all that happens. Although not especially violent, deaths do occur and the film takes surprising steps in the manner and means in which it places children in jeopardy. But this, of course, is the whole point. Fairytales were devised as warnings to the young about the dangers of the world around them, and the stories that the real Brothers Grimm collected (they didn't actually create the stories themselves) was an amazingly grisly and frightening collection. Even so, once the slapstick peters out and terrors begin, the film does achieve some intense and bizarre moments of sadistic zeal. Scenes depicting children being stalked in the woods are necessarily uncomfortable and the occasional fates that are shown are quite horrific - swallowed by a horse in a scene that terrified Jonathon Ross and the awful fate of the little girl by the well - but are welcome in a film that is not afraid to shy away from the true message behind its folkloric origins. The fairytale icon of the woodsman/werewolf bedecked in furs and carrying a huge axe proves to be the most nerve-shredding image that Gilliam has lurking about purely because a lumbering outsider prowling about the forest is totally credible even today. And, in keeping with all those medieval suspicions, this one really does turn into a werewolf.
“She's still there, Will. She's up in the tower ... still alive.”
“For five hundred years?”
“Yes, but they haven't been kind, Will, I can tell you that!”
The film is laced with fabulous imagery. Sometimes dark and demented, other times captivating and mysterious, but always flavoured with extraordinary dashes of the purest gothique. The trees that come alive and waddle about on their spidery roots; the rickety tower that rises high up above an enchanted forest; the mystical and menacing mirror-play in the baroque bedchamber of the witch-queen; Cavaldi's ingeniously deranged devices for torture; and, of course, the deliriously frightening scene in which a possessed horse gobbles up a concerned child and takes hellish flight through the haunted woods - all wonderful stuff that has been extrapolated from a conjuror's ceaseless imagination and painted liberally across the screen. The many nods to the famous fairytales that the Grimm boys collected are deliciously woven into the set-pieces. But before you can smugly settle back in the belief that you have discovered them all, Gilliam plays pick 'n' mix with them, fashioning and re-tooling them into a strange new mythology all of his own, a hybrid fantasy of the old and the new, the blatant and the clandestine. Spot the cheeky little insert of an old woman knocking at a cottage door with a red apple clutched in her hand, though, and the likeably daft kissing of Grandmother Toad to elicit her help. The effects, by and large, are very good indeed, with the most kudos going to the incredible set design. Keeping the air of mystery unique and unsettling was helped no end by creating artificial woods in the studio, a trick equally well employed by Ridley Scott for Legend, Neil Jordon for The Company Of Wolves and Tim Burton for Sleepy Hollow (all, incidentally, films that The Brothers Grimm shares a rich literary and thematic connection with). But, if anything, Gilliam's are the best and most entrancing. The three-dimensional quality of these sumptuous sets is staggering to behold. Oh, we know they aren't real, but their constructed beauty keeps the atmosphere claustrophobic and alive, creepy and unnatural, yet breathtakingly intricate and captivating. Tendrils, vines, brooks, caves and a forest floor that is burnished with autumnal leaves conspire to create the enchanted wood of yore, inviting and foreboding all at one. The way in which this lush scenery has been blended in with matte painted backdrops is beyond reproach. And the tower at the centre of it all is a wondrous spire plucked straight out of a fabulous dream. The same can't quite be said for the CGI, however. The werewolf, quite notoriously, is not up to scratch and sticks out like a cartoonic sore thumb. Although, to be fair, the point is that he looks just like one of the wolves that you would find in an old illustration in a child's book of fairytales, so I suppose photo-realism would be equally out of place. But other elements don't really work too well, either. The view down a horse's oesophagus is pretty woeful, by today's standards, and the little CG red scarf seen flitting across a stream and into the woods looks more like my son had painted it onto my flatscreen panel than any professionally composed visual trick. Overall, though, the movie looks and feels splendid and it is, perhaps, only because of the otherwise high gloss and tremendous production values that these little naff bits disappoint.
“The blood of the twelfth, my Queen.”
And whilst Damon and Ledger do their thing with enjoyable enough gusto, Peter Stormare and Jonathan Pryce do their damndest to derail the macabre atmosphere by injecting far too much high camp into the cauldron. Both - but especially Pryce - have made their careers out of spritzing up their roles and, on face value, Gilliam's film would seem like the perfect nesting place for such pantomime villainy. But the pair go too far, Stormare particularly is let off the leash much too often with a performance that is positively lacquered on top of the film. He was the one fly in the ointment in the otherwise great Constantine, his Julian Clarey riff on the Devil proving to be a spectacular error, and now that his Cavaldi has cavorted so ribaldly through this delightful fantasy I may think twice about even considering to watch another film that he appears in. Pryce, on the other hand, always prances through his parts. His fanciful toff in the Pirates Of The Caribbean flicks is obvious, but he sliced the ham thick and fruity in Tomorrow Never Dies, Something Wicked This Way Comes and even Ronin as well. As the manic aristocratic General Delatombe he is at once effete and dangerous, mixing comedy with a double-dealing zeal that almost brings the duo - he and Cavaldi - out of the doldrums. And speaking of duos, it is both nice and somewhat depressing to see the great-faced Mackenzie Crook once again applying his wit and talent to one half of a double-act. Depressing in that it seems filmmakers just don't trust him on his own. Inseparable from his partner in the Pirates movies, he here has a dim-witted, chubby-cheeked chum to work alongside, too. As Hidlick, he and Richard Ridings' Bunst are the two canny operatives who work behind the scenes for the Grimm boys' elaborate scams and stunt-hauntings. Sadly, the two don't really receive much screen-time, appearing merely now and again, and usually only as torture-fodder. Much better value is Lena Headey's exuberant huntress, Angelika, who cuts a dash with her bow and arrows and pierces the hearts of both our heroes. Nice to see a gusty heroine who has more balls than the leading men. We can't leave out the delectable presence of Monica Belluci, as the Witch-Queen. No stranger to gothic fantasy having appeared in the not-unrelated Les Pacte Des Loups (aka Brotherhood Of The Wolf - one of my all-time favourite movies), Belluci effortlessly combines her beauty with a tempting instensity from beyond the grave to perfect her insidious, entrancing powers to mesmerise all who chance upon her. It is possibly a thankless role, but she brings so much grace and depth to the part that she ensures its haunting memory long after the film has finished. On the subject of Brotherhood Of The Wolf, the early scene in which Will and Jake arrive in Karlsbad during a ferocious rainstorm, their leather collars turned up and obscuring their faces, is practically a steal/homage to Wolf's similar sequence of Fronsac and Mani arriving Gevaudan.
Another great part of the movie is the spellbinding score from Dario Marianelli, who also provided the terrific music for V For Vendetta. Lush and sweeping in structure, his compositions greet every facet of the story with weird, wonderful and often wild orchestration. The main theme is tremendous, taking in the bombast of the action, the whimsy of the heroes and the mysterioso ethnic instrumentation of European fantasy. At times purely comical, at others suffused with a memorably eerie romanticism, Marianelli's score twists and turns with the chaotic story, delivering classy pay-off to the visuals at every opportunity. Standout cues cover the sequence when the trees come to life and snatch riders from their horses, and the magically suspenseful moment when Angelika faces the wolf. Soundtrack CD thoroughly recommended, score-fans.
At times the film becomes muddled and bogged-down with too many set-pieces and a kind of deja-vu creeping through its structure. And, certainly for me, the climax goes on a little bit too long, cramming in cliffhanger after cliffhanger until the whole thing becomes over-egged and perhaps too inventive for its own good - Gilliam just wanting to have his cake and eat it. That said, though, The Brothers Grimm is possibly Gilliam's most coherent film so far and, for my money, his most enjoyable. Definitely recommended.