Monica Belluci, Mackenzie Crook, Matt Damon, Lena Headey, Heath Ledger, Jonathan Pryce, Peter Stormare.
North America 26th August, UK 4th November.
118 minutes approx.
"Christ, Will, are you dying inside? That stinks!"
Terry Gilliam has given us some cracking films. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Brazil, Time Bandits, Twelve Monkeys, Baron Munchausen, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas...and now, the Brothers Grimm.
The premise is a new take on the storytelling duo. Will (Damon) and Jake (Ledger) are the Brothers Grimm. They are con men. Chancers. Not honest. They make their living by convincing superstitious communities that they are being haunted, and then get rid of the problem. For a small fee, of course. Set in 19th century French-occupied Germany, business is good thanks to the fear and uncertainty of the mainly rural populace. The Grimmís methods are best summed up by a line from the film: "It's not magic, it's just shiny!"
I don't know what happened during the making of the film, rumours of interference abounded, but the visuals are certainly as gorgeous and intricately detailed as you'd expect from Gilliam, well done and by turns realistic and fantastic. The special effects range from the wince-inducingly obvious to the truly great, thankfully the shit effects are mostly early on, so you can enjoy the later stuff to the fullest. The music is very good, there are some haunting instrumental renditions of lullabies in there, and while I think they should have dominated, they aren't used that often. The story, though predictable, is still good enough to carry you along and although you will guess what's going to happen, you'll still enjoy it. I think that speaks for how good the film is.
"Will, you've fucking farted again, haven't you?"
The acting is uneven; it has to be said. Damon does well with a fucking arsehole of a character, he's a prick and he acts it. Ledger is better as the believer and dreamer, and his continual flailing gestures seem designed not to intimidate but to keep his bullying brother away. He gets the better of the two characters, I think, though Damon gives it all he can, an elder brother who doesn't believe in fairytales (who has grown out of them) is always going to be at odds in a story that is
essentially a fairytale. Headey, as a huntress helping the Grimms, is one of those actresses who has been around for years, you know her face, but can you name anything she's been in? Can you fuck. She makes the unfortunate mistake of playing it straight, and it's an adequate performance, but just doesn't sit right in this film. Pryce is a bit of a Gilliam veteran, plays a Napoleon-alike and knows what needs to be done and does it. No more, no less. Bit of a missed opportunity there, I feel. Stormare overacts like a madman as a master torturer, and I found it hilarious and shit alternately, often in the same scene. He always seems to get called in whenever there's a character with a dodgy accent, and they've got the poor Swedish bastard playing an Italian. The accent, thankfully, is so bad as to be amusing, though you sometimes struggle to understand just what it is he's trying to say.
In fact, accents as a whole are strangely inconsistent throughout the film. Stormare wavers in some strange sort of Euro-Scando Hell. Pryce's French accent falters and sometimes gives up completely. Ledger drops back into his native Aussie in times of stress ("Throw another gingerbread man on the barbie, Sheila!") and Damon is stuck with being as accentless as he can manage. Headey just gives it to us straight, clear English flavoured with the last of her Yorkshire accent, barely noticeable. I find it odd in these films, that foreign characters speak accented English in the guise of their own language. We know they're foreign, there's no need to club us around the head with it! Does that make it more authentic? No. Fucking behave.
It's just plain odd. Some of the cast try for accented English, some don't bother. There really should have been a uniform approach, but it's a minor niggle, really.
The golden bat found the Queen delicious.
Still, it all comes together very well. The film is both darker and funnier than I thought it would be. I ummed and ahhed about seeing it, hearing this and that about how Gilliam's vision had been watered down, and how it was his most commercial film yet. Well, guilty on both counts, but it's still a good film. Watered-down Gilliam is better than a lot of other directors pure, and although the humour is a bit hit and miss, most of it is hit, and some of them are bullseyes. Full credit to Richard Ridings and Mackenzie Crook as the Grimm's assistants, they made me fucking piss myself laughing at one point. The ending is a little rushed, but you probably won't care, to be honest. You'll have had two hours of solid entertainment by then, and that's a lot more than most films deliver.
Comparisons to 'Sleepy Hollow' are obvious, if not inevitable, and though similar if summed up (a retelling of an old tale), Burton's world is one that is close kin to ours, but no more. Gilliam's could very well be our world, a little twisted, a little offbeat, extended beyond it's usual borders by our dreams and nightmares, but they are unmistakably our
dreams and nightmares. Burton's vision is brilliant, but exclusive. It is most definitely his and his alone. Gilliam's is a little more generic (there's a word that feels weird when applied to Gilliam), if only because he uses fairytales, which nearly all of us share, as the basis of his story. This makes it easier to believe and share in, and the multitude of nice touches of realism in the fantasy only reinforce its impact.
There are elements of 'Little Red Riding Hood', 'Hansel and Gretel', 'The Gingerbread Man' and several other fairytales in the film, but they are all a lot darker than in their traditional form. The film fills in the blanks and ambiguities the stories have, and is at times eerie and disturbing. Kids will adore it, in other words. There are one or two truly unsettling moments when you wonder how the film got a 12A certificate, and no doubt there'll be a few "Won't somebody think of the children!"-type comments, but I would have loved to see this as a kid, no matter how many bricks I shat.
Thinking (in some wanky cases, hoping) that children will reach adulthood without hearing a naughty word, knowing what sex is or having personal experience of violence or death is a dangerously stupid attitude to take, and it needs to be disposed of. This is the 21st century. Not the 19th. Those people are dead, and their attitudes should be too. The world can bite, and children need to know it. The easiest way to tell them is through fairytales. So it's about time the fairytales got to bite too.
Oh, what sharp teeth you have...